RT Expert View: state borders vs. self-determination

This week we ask experts to comment on one of the basic contradictions of international politics: does the territorial integrity of a state (its borders) take precedence over a people’s right for self-determination?

Peter Lavelle, RT’s anchor and political commentator.

Russia has recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia. To date, it appears unlikely many countries in the world will follow Russia’s lead any time soon. Kosovo, which declared unilateral independence in February, has been recognized by scores of countries, but many other countries are steadfast that they will continue to refuse to acknowledge Kosovo’s statehood.

Interestingly enough, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Kosovo are recognized (or not recognized) due to interpretations of international law. Almost everyone touts the UN Charter and/or the Helsinki Final Act to justify their stance on recognition of a country’s international legal status. How did it come to this? How can the same basic legal documents be interpreted so differently?

What has happened to international law? During the Cold War there were differing opinions about how it should work, but since then consensus has slowly vanished. Was there something about the Cold War that made consensus about international law easier and more straightforward? Why is this not the case today?

Finally, what is the purpose of international law if it simply allows some countries to use it as they wish?

Peter Lavelle's blog on RT

Patrick Armstrong retired in 2008 after 30 years as an analyst for the Canadian government, specialising in, first the USSR and then Russia.

Leaving aside the question of whether there actually is such a thing as “international law” in any meaningful sense, there is a contradiction between two “principles” of international relations. The first is the inviolability of borders; the second is the self-determination of nations.

If there is agreement of all parties (or agreement can be pretended), as there was in the cases of the USSR, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia recently and Norway and Sweden a century ago, the two principles can co-exist and the “international community” can comfortably recognise the new states.

If there is no agreement, as in the cases of Kosovo, South Ossetia or Abkhazia, the issue is generally settled by force.

What we see today is NATO insisting that self-determination trumped inviolable borders in Kosovo, but not in Georgia; with Moscow claiming the reverse. If “international law” is to mean anything more than a cloak in which self-interest postures, this contradiction must be tackled.

Joera Mulders, an independent Russia watcher from Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

In international law, states are the principle actors. International law therefore manifests itself when there is consensus among states, but seems absent when states differ about the interpretation of international law.

Russia's recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the recently signed treaties between the three entities are on a collision course with the position predominant in the EU and US. Moreover the collision has taken many by surprise. There is confusion. Decisions are ad hoc. Both sides are improvising. A consensus on the interpretation of international law is lost, but not forever. As the Cold War has shown, even within a bipolar world there can be a consensus.

We may see the current events and the ensuing uncertainty as a rupture in the consensus that was shaped after the Cold War. This was a consensus in which the so called western position has been dominant. Russia believes international politics is evolving towards a multi-polar world and many in other states around the globe share this vision. From this perspective it looks as if the post Cold War consensus is breaking up to realign itself in a new configuration, in which we will again find a sense of certainty in a consensus on international law.

But what is happening in the meantime, in these 'times of troubles', when one order disintegrates to be rebuilt by another? Politicians refer to the UN Charter and talk about international tribunals, but these calls sound hollow, as the authority of these documents and bodies is dwindling in the absence of consensus. Such statements move to the sidelines and the centre of the debate becomes occupied by morality. Actions that go against the former consensus have to be explained and morality is the instrument at hand.

This week the Russian president said the following:

“The goal of our actions has undoubtedly been to restrain the Georgian aggressors, to return peace and stability to the Caucasus and to create the conditions for a free and democratic development of the Abkhaz and South-Ossetian peoples”.

The world and especially the US and EU should note how close the spirit of this justification, this moral explication for Russia's military intervention, is to 'European values'.

Even though, the consensus on the interpretation of international law seems disturbed by the opposing views on the recognition of first Kosovo and now Abkhazia and South-Ossetia, the underlying moral language is perhaps more similar than ever before. The basis for a renewed consensus is there for the taking.