Fundamentally Freund: Selective self-determination

Fundamentally Freund Se

Last week, hearings began at the International Court of Justice in The Hague which could prove to be of immense importance to Israel. Although the case in question relates to the legality of Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia last year, it touches upon a deeper and far more contentious issue in international relations: the right to and limits of self-determination. And while issues of international law usually evoke little more than yawns from most of us, this is one debate that we should all try to stay awake for and perhaps even follow closely, if only because of its potential ramifications for the conflict in the Middle East. The question before the court is whether the province of Kosovo had the legal right to break away from Serbia. The region's population is more than 90 percent ethnic Albanian, many of whom have been agitating for independence since the breakup of the Yugoslav federation in the 1990s. Ten years ago, Kosovo was the scene of intensifying violence, leading NATO to launch a bombing campaign between March and June 1999 with the goal of driving Serbian military forces from the area. Subsequently, the UN began to administer the province, and in February 2008 Kosovar leaders formally declared their independence. Some 63 countries, including most Western states, have recognized Kosovo as a sovereign state, but many, such as Serbia and Russia, do not, and Belgrade has asked the World Court to issue an advisory ruling regarding the legitimacy of the Kosovar move. WHAT DOES any of this have to do with Israel, you might be asking? Well, the answer is: quite a lot. To begin with, the right of self-determination is one that the Palestinians regularly invoke to justify their demand for statehood. There is hardly a speech that is made in the halls of the UN on the subject that does not summon this "right" in an effort to substantiate the Palestinian claim. Where this right begins, and ends, in international relations is of course hardly ever discussed. Indeed, just what exactly are its limits? For example, as a matter of principle, could residents of Brooklyn claim to be a unique nation with their own history, geography and even accent, and seek to break away from the US and form their own state? It might sound silly, or even absurd, but where exactly does one draw the line? Perhaps Gazan Arabs can assert their uniqueness and distinction from their brethren in Judea and Samaria, and insist on separating from them as well, in the process giving new meaning to the term "two states for two peoples". That is what makes the court ruling on Kosovo potentially so significant, because of the impact it may have on the commonly held, yet vaguely defined notion of just who has the right under international law to seek sovereignty and independence. As a result, it could indirectly strengthen, or possibly even weaken, the Palestinian argument on this issue. But even more compelling than all the legalities is the usual spectacle of duplicity that is on display, as various countries weigh in on the matter with what can only be described as a selective approach to self-determination. Take Russia, for example. Moscow has vigorously defended Serbia's right to Kosovo and rejected the province's arguments in favor of independence. And yet, it was just last year that Russia supported moves by the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to break away from the Caucasus nation of Georgia. VARIOUS EUROPEAN countries are no less incoherent. France was one of the first countries to recognize Kosovo, and it has even opened an embassy in the province's capital of Pristina. But in Paris' own backyard, it has proven far less amenable to the idea of self-determination when it comes to either the Corsicans or Basques, many of whom would like to be free of French rule. Apparently, not all "rights to self-determination" were created equal. This, too, is another reason why Israel should be following events at the World Court closely. After all, we regularly take a battering from various countries who preach to us about the need to grant statehood to the Palestinians. They stand on principle in lecturing us about Ramallah's right to self-rule, even as they adopt wildly inconsistent positions on a range of other international disputes. However briefly, the hearings at The Hague will cast a spotlight on the hypocrisy of their stance. It behooves us to take notice, and to remind our critics of it with unflinching frequency.