Timothy William Waters, a professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, is the author of numerous articles on self-determination.
DAYS before it began voting for independence, Africa’s soon-to-be newest country hosted a modern Pharaoh who, not long ago, sent armies to crush its bid for freedom. In a visit to South Sudan’s capital, Juba, just before the week-long referendum began, Sudan’s President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir vowed to respect the region’s right to form a new country: “We cannot deny the desire and the choice of the people of the south,” said Al-Bashir. “This is their right.”
Sudan’s leader didn’t always talk this way. His new magnanimity follows decades of grinding, wasting struggle pitting the Arab Muslim-dominated government against Christian and animist southerners, in a bid to control their oil-rich land and impose Islamic law onthem. Millions died; thousands were enslaved. (Al-Bashir has also been indicted for genocide in Darfur.) Pressure from the United States produced the 2005 agreement that gave the South autonomy and led to this week’s referendum. There have been some violent incidents, but nothing like the slaughter of the past. Mostly voters have calming registered their overwhelming desire for independence. Yet only months ago, experts still feared a return to full-scale war if Sudan’s rulers again hardened their hearts.
Instead there was Al-Bashir, saying these extraordinary things. Though the causes are complex, Khartoum’s acquiescence has made the difference between war and peace. The diplomatic pressure from the US and African states has all been focused on ensuring Sudan’s government allows the vote to proceed and respects the outcome, rather than reverting to war. This holds an important lesson about the sources of violent conflict within states, and shows that the world needs a radically new approach to secession.
Although Al-Bashir acknowledged southerners’ right to secede, it’s a right most peoples don’t have. Since the Second World War, territorial integrity has been a pillar of our international order: states’ borders can’t be changed without their consent. Even the creative diplomacy leading to the 2005 agreement needed Sudan’s signature.
The problem is all the states that aren’t willing. Preventing interstate wars of conquest is clearly positive, but the belief that fixed frontiers reduce internal violence is more assumed than proven. Challenging borders is thought to open Pandora’s box – but what if borders are the problem? Read the rest of this entry…