Borderline views: Crimea, the West Bank and the rule of international law

The international community doesn't recognize Israeli occupation of the West Bank, it does not recognize the Russian occupation of Crimea.

Voters inreferendum on the status of Ukraine's Crimea (photo credit: REUTERS)
Voters inreferendum on the status of Ukraine's Crimea
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The ethnic Russian population constitutes approximately 56 percent of the population of Crimea, with Ukrainians making up a further 24 %. The Palestinian population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip constitute over 90% of the population, with the Jewish settler population making up less than 10%.
The Crimea has been governed by Ukraine since 1954, a period of just under 50 years. The West Bank and Gaza Strip have been under Israeli control since 1967, a period of almost 50 years.
Russia illegally invaded the Crimea in January, following the Ukrainian revolution against the pro-Russian government. Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the Six Day War of 1967.
Just as no one consulted the Palestinians prior to the Israeli conquest of the territory, so too no one consulted the ethnic Russians of the Crimea prior to the decision of Soviet Union President Nikita Kruschev to transfer the region to Ukraine in 1954.
The international community does not recognize the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The international community does not recognize the Russian occupation of Crimea.
It does not accept the results of the referendum held this week which showed that a majority of the Crimean population want to secede from the Ukraine and become part of Russia. Even if the results of the 90% yes vote were falsified, the majority Russian population of the region clearly prefer to retain their links with the “motherland.”
The international community does recognize the rights of Palestinian self-determination and the eventual establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Since the West Bank and Gaza have never been part of a sovereign state (neither Jordan prior to 1967, or Israel since that date) there is no legal problem of secession involved, an almost unique situation on the face of the contemporary globe.
Crimea and the West Bank are but two of a number of ethno-territorial regions in the world where questions of secession and independence have re-emerged, even in some of the world’s most stable political regions, such as in Western Europe or North America.
Catalonia and the Basques would like to secede from Spain, but no referendum will be offered to them. The Basques have, for the moment, stepped back from violence against the state, but this could ostensibly return if their ethno-national rights continue to take second place to those of Spain.
By contrast, Scotland will be holding a referendum this year to decide on its future. If it votes in favor of secession from the United Kingdom, the decision will be recognized by the international community, even if it does not guarantee them automatic continued membership of the European Union.
Every few years, the issue of independence for the French-speaking province of Quebec in Canada rears its head. Twenty years ago, the emergence of the Bloc Quebecois party raised the very real specter of an independent Quebec, with thousands of English speakers leaving the province for Ontario or Western Canada.
The Balkans have reverted to a region of ethnically homogeneous states (Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia) in what had previously been the multi-ethnic federation of Yugoslavia. The Republic of Kosovo with its dominant Albanian population demands independence, while the reconstituted State of Serbia refuses to recognize the right of secession.
The Kurds remain stateless. Distributed across Turkey, Iraq and Iran, in regions which are only separated from each other by the artificially constructed post World War I borders, they remain the largest single ethnic population lacking independence. During the past decade, the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq has gained significant autonomy as Iraq has fragmented from within, but here too the international community has not granted the region any form of independence or the right to formally secede from the ethnically heterogeneous State of Iraq.
When is secession from the state and the establishment of a new independent political entity acceptable to the international community – and when does it stand back from granting such a request? There seems to be no clear rhyme or pattern to this process. Based on the universal principle of the right of self-determination for ethnic and national groups, each and every one of the cases mentioned should have the right to establish their own independent states.
But the United Nations does not look favorably on an increase in the number of small, ethnically homogeneous states. It is only too well aware that what happens in the state of their neighbor today, could well boomerang and happen in their own state 10 years down the road.
Self-determination, autonomy, human rights – yes. Secession and the establishment of new states? Rarely.
It is ironic that the era of globalization, which has given rise to the (now largely discredited) theories of a networked, borderless world, in place of the Wesphalian state system, should also have given rise to a growth, rather than decline, in the number of ethnic and national groups who now demand greater local autonomy, devolution of power and eventual secession and independence. The critical social theorists were telling us, not 20 years ago, that the impact of globalization would bring about a post-modern world in which traditional notions of statehood and sovereignty would become obsolescent.
But what they conveniently forgot to mention was that as borders became easier to cross and states became more interlinked and dependent on each other, and as groups became less afraid to express their indigenous rights, so too there would be a growth of local ethnic self-government and a demand for autonomy.
At the end of the day it doesn’t have much to do with a sophisticated geopolitical or international relations theory. It comes down to what is convenient for states as they examine their own realpolitik and self-interest.
A “yes” vote in Scotland could potentially lead to a domino effect, with many other national groups demanding the holding of referenda. Clearly, there are many governments, including some in Western Europe, who are none too happy at the British governments’ decision to allow the referendum to be held.
The world may oppose Crimean secession from the Ukraine, but if Russia remains determined to regain direct control of the region and to leave its troops there, then there is not much that the international community can do about it. They will not intervene militarily while any attempt to impose economic sanctions or embargos will have a very limited effect. Russia is too important a player in contemporary global politics for the world to exclude it, and President Putin is well aware of this reality. And it still remains in the interests of the international community to have Russia on board. Crimea will not be the reason for a return to the Cold War.
And if Israel continues to refuse to relinquish ultimate control over the Palestinians and fails to withdraw from the West Bank (the fault for which will respectively be laid by each side at the door of the other), attempts at sanctions, BDS and boycotts will have a limited impact. There will be individual cases of economic or academic boycotts, there will be a great deal of media headlines, but at the end of the day, such action does not enjoy global support in North America, Russia, China and India – or for that matter much of Western Europe.
For the foreseeable future, Russia will extend its control over Crimea, and Israel will retain its control over the West Bank. The two situations may be incomparable in many respects, but they nevertheless reflect the weakness of the international system (the United Nations) in determining any form of common standard of world governance. Power relations and realpolitik will determine who will, or will not have, the right to transform their dreams of independence and self-government into a reality.
The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University and editor of The International Journal of Geopolitics.
The views expressed are his alone.