Cultural Rights (15): Crimea and the Ethics of Secession

I’m afraid I’m one of those people who can’t remain silent when everyone else is talking about something. So, a few words about the situation in Crimea. The Russian government and some of the Russians in Crimea are making the argument for secession on the basis of national self-determination and the rights of Russian speakers in the region. It may be useful to have a look at the moral merits of that argument, first in a general and theoretical sense and then applied to the specific case of Crimea. (I’m not discussing the legal merits here).

Ideally, the right to secession shouldn’t exist. An ideal state grants individuals and cultural or ethnic groups all the rights they require, including (limited) self-government and self-determination. Even a very large and diverse state could – and probably should – do that. That is why the right to secession can only have a place in non-ideal theory. But what place? I believe it won’t be among the priorities. In the non-ideal world – the current one – the right to secession should not be the first option, mainly because other, less risky means to realize certain rights would often be available. For example: devolution, agitation, representation etc.

Secession is, most of the time, a one-sided decision that doesn’t have the approval of the state from which a territory wants to secede. Hence the risk of violent conflict, and this risk should be balanced against the possible benefits of secession, especially when non-secessionist and therefore less risky means can yield the same benefits. But even if we’re dealing with a mutual decision, secession may not be the optimal solution because the seceding entity can become the kind of state that doesn’t guarantees all the rights of the new minorities living within its new borders. I wouldn’t even call a mutually agreed separation a secession, by the way.

Of course, there will be cases of extreme oppression that warrant unilateral secession on the grounds that other, less risky means are simply unavailable. For example, it’s difficult to make the case that a secession of part of the territory of North Korea – even one that turns violent and deadly – is not the right thing to do, morally speaking. Both the specific right to self-determination of the seceding Koreans and their other rights would seem to warrant a certain cost.

So what are the reasons that make secession the morally right thing to do? If we agree to limit the concept of secession to a one-sided decision then a secession is justified when:

  1. the purpose is the realization of the human rights of a group of people – including their right to self-government – and this realization is impossible by any other, less risky means within their current state (secession for the purpose of a power grab is then not justified);
  2. the new political entity will most likely grant a higher level of protection of human rights within its territory, including the rights of the new minorities;
  3. and the secession decision is approved by a majority – or perhaps a super majority – of the seceding group. (Self-government is one of the rights that may justify secession, and so it can’t be violated by the act of secession itself).

There may be more necessary preconditions for secession to be ethical, but I believe the combined presence of these 3 are a bare minimum. (The same preconditions would have to be present in the case of bilaterally agreed “secession”, with perhaps the added condition that also a majority of the remaining state should agree. But I’m not sure about that).

The problem, of course, is that much of this is by definition unknown beforehand. The group that wants to secede knows the rights violations it now endures, but doesn’t know the possible effectiveness of non-secessionist means or the possible risks of secession. The nature of the future government of the new political entity is unknown as well, and it’s therefore uncertain how that government will perform regarding the rights of both the new minorities and the majority.

Let’s now return to the case of Crimea. I’m obviously not an expert on the region, but as far as I can tell, none of the three conditions for justified secession are present. It’s clear that the Russian speaking majority in Crimea (if it is a majority) has (or had?) at its disposal other non-secessionist means to further its cause. The upheavals in Kiev did not make long term improvements regarding the rights of the Russian speaking majority in Crimea impossible. There was no reason to believe that the new government of the Ukraine would engage in massive rights violations in Crimea. And, in any case, it’s not clear that the inhabitants of the Crimea – including the non-Russians – will have a higher level of rights protection in the Russian state or in a separate, new state under the tutelage of Russia. If anything, the opposite is more likely. (If Ukraine were to become a member of the EU, that would mean even better prospects for the rights of all Ukrainian citizens).

The second condition for justified secession is equally absent. Whether Crimea will become part of Russia or a separate state in Russia’s sphere of influence, past experience with minority rights in Russia or its dependencies isn’t reassuring.

And with regard to the third condition, we can all agree that the referendum was a sham. Under the circumstances, it’s impossible to know whether or not a majority of the inhabitants of Crimea are genuinely in favor of secession from Ukraine. A rushed referendum under the threat of violence doesn’t tell us anything apart from the fact that even Putin craves the appearance of democratic legitimacy. Perhaps a year ago we could have known. But not anymore.

More on cultural rights here.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (7): “Drowning” Data

Suppose we want to know how many forced disappearances there are in Chechnya. Assuming we have good data this isn’t hard to do. The number of disappearances that have been registered, by the government or some NGO, is x on a total Chechen population of y, giving z%. The Russian government may decide that the better measurement is for Russia as a whole. Given that there are almost no forced disappearances in other parts of Russia, the z% goes down dramatically, perhaps close to or even below the level other comparable countries.

Good points for Russia! But that doesn’t mean that the situation in Chechnya is OK. The data for Chechnya are simply “drowned” into those of Russia, giving the impression that “overall”, Russia isn’t doing all that bad. This, however, is misleading. The proper unit of measurement should be limited to the area where the problem occurs. The important thing here isn’t a comparison of Russia with other countries; it’s an evaluation of a local problem.

Something similar happens to the evaluation of the Indian economy:

Madhya Pradesh, for example, is comparable in population and incidence of poverty to the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. But the misery of the DRC is much better known than the misery of Madhya Pradesh, because sub-national regions do not appear on “poorest country” lists. If Madhya Pradesh were to seek independence from India, its dire situation would become more visible immediately. …

But because it’s home to 1.1 billion people, India is more able than most to conceal the bad news behind the good, making its impressive growth rates the lead story rather than the fact that it is home to more of the world’s poor than any other country. …

A 10-year-old living in the slums of Calcutta, raising her 5-year-old brother on garbage and scraps, and dealing with tapeworms and the threat of cholera, suffers neither more nor less than a 10-year-old living in the same conditions in the slums of Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. But because the Indian girl lives in an “emerging economy,” slated to battle it out with China for the position of global economic superpower, and her counterpart in Lilongwe lives in a country with few resources and a bleak future, the Indian child’s predicament is perceived with relatively less urgency. (source)

Cultural Rights (11): Genocide


Genocide is the deliberate, systematic and violent destruction of a group (an ethnic, racial, religious, national or political group). This destruction can take many forms:

  • the outright murder of (the majority of) the members of the group
  • inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about destruction
  • measures intended to prevent births
  • systematic rape as a means of terror and a means to “dilute” the identity of the group
  • forcibly transferring children of the group to another group
  • destroying the (cultural) identity of the group (forceful assimilation; imposition of a language, religion etc.)

“Systematic” is important here. Short-term outburst or pogrom type actions will probably not amount to genocide.

The “intent to destroy” is also crucial when labeling actions or campaigns as genocidal. The destruction, however, doesn’t have to be physical (i.e. large-scale murder). As is obvious from the list above, cultural destruction or destruction of the groups’ separate identity is also genocide.

Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide states that genocide is

“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group…”

The “in part” bit has led to some confusion. When is the part of the group that is being destroyed big enough to warrant the label of genocide? There is still some discussion about absolute numbers of victims, percentages of the total population of the group, degree of killing in the territory controlled by the killers etc.

Of all the generally recognized genocides that have taken place throughout human history, the most infamous ones occured in the 20th century (the Holocaust, Rwanda, Armenia, Cambodia, Stalin’s forced famines, Mao’s Great Leap Forward etc.).

Before a genocide is actually carried out, the perpetrators usually take a number of “preparatory” steps:

  • dehumanization of a group (vermin, insects or diseases…)
  • promotion of narratives of “us and them
  • hate propaganda, polarization
  • criminalization of a group (group has to be eliminated “in order that we may live”; them or us)
  • identification of victims (“yellow star”)
  • concentration of victims (ghettos)
  • mobilization of large numbers of perpetrators
  • state support and logistical organization (arms, transport, training of militias etc.)

The causes of genocide are often hard to pin down. They include:

  • long-lasting tensions
  • imbalances in political power
  • imbalances in wealth or economic power
  • scarcity
  • religious incompatibilities
  • indoctrination and propaganda
  • civil war
  • ideals of cultural purity and autonomy
  • ethnological constructs (e.g. the creation of “hutuness” in Rwanda) which get a life of their own
  • colonial heritage
  • outside indifference
  • etc.

Migration and Human Rights (6): Xenophobia

Xenophobia, the contempt or fear of strangers or foreign people, often people of a different race or ethnic group, is not considered to be a disease like other “phobias”. It is part of a political struggle against adversaries, much like racism is. (Whereas racism is certainly xenophobic, xenophobia doesn’t have to be racist; it can be directed against groups which are not racially different from the xenophobes).

Xenophobia often takes places within a society rather than between societies. A group present within a society is not considered a legitimate part of that society and has to be expelled or assimilated in order not to corrupt or damage the interests of the rest of society. Hence the link to ethnic cleansing or genocide.

Causes of xenophobia include:

  • Ethnically-based nationalism (e.g. xenophobia in the Balkan countries)
  • Migration, although xenophobia may be directed against a group which has been present for centuries, or against very small numbers of immigrants or foreigners (e.g. Japan in the 19th century)
  • Perceived threats to culture or national identity
  • Religious doctrine (e.g. the attitude of some Muslims towards unbelievers)
  • Perceptions of neocolonialism (e.g. present-day Zimbabwe)
  • Political imbalances (e.g. one group holding a disproportionate share of political power, e.g. anti-Tutsi xenophobia in Rwanda before and during the genocide)
  • Terrorism (e.g. anti-Muslim xenophobia following 9-11)
  • Competition for scarce resources
  • A mix of the above.