What is self-determination?
The notion of self-determination as a universal principle, whether viewed through a political, moral, or legal lens, has been and continues to be imprecise and in dire need of further clarification. U.S. president Woodrow Wilson understood self-determination to be the belief that every people had the right to select their own form of government, to “choose the sovereignty under which they shall live” and thus be free of alien masters.[i]
Although there was initially disagreement as to who precisely is the “self” to which the right of self-determination refers, the Versailles Peace Conference linked self-determination with the “principle of nationalities,” or an ethnographic view of the “self.”[ii]
One of the perplexities confronting the people of West Papua is the concept of “self” in international law. While the West Papuan’s, along with other peoples such as the Palestinians and the Kurds without an independent state, like to root their claims to sovereignty in the United Nations, the U.N. Charter added little clarity to existing notions of self-determination in international law. In the preamble the U.N. Charter states that:
“To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace…”
The document refers only twice to the “principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples” and then only in a preamble to a statement of the broader purpose of the organization.
Such passing references stand in stark contrast to the operative principles of the charter that spoke of the need for its member states to refrain from “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” and ruled out U.N. intervention in “matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.”
It was not until 1960 with the passage of the U.N. Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples that self-determination began to develop coherence as a principle. It states that, “The subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and co-operation.” The only reasonable assumption that can be made based on this statement, is that that the majority of inhabitants in any colony would be free to choose their future political status, although the integrity of established national boundaries would continue to be respected.
Thomas M. Franck[iii] argued persuasively that Third World leaders, putting aside tribal claims that could result in a wholesale redrawing of maps, largely accepted the importance of recognized borders. Such boundaries were viewed as the essential building blocks of stable self-government, helping to guard against the absorption by another state or the dismemberment of a territory against the will of the majority of its inhabitants.
U.N. General Assembly resolutions 1514 and 1541 set out three means by which a territory could achieve self-government. These were emergence as a sovereign independent state, free association with an independent state, or integration with an independent state. The 1970 Declaration of the U.N. Special Committee on Friendly Relations reinforced the position that there were legitimate outcomes of self-determination apart from independence, so long as these outcomes reflected the freely expressed choice of people in colonized territories. (See for example Rupert Emerson’s discussion in, “Self-Determination,” American Journal of International Law, 65 (1971): 470.)
The creation in 1961 of the U.N. Special Committee on the Situation with Regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples set out a supervisory role for the U.N. in the final stages of the self-determination process. In this process, a colonial power would request that the U.N. supervise a self-determination referendum so as to ensure an orderly transition through decolonization to whatever form of state the local population chose. With due respect to the UN and the good intentions of some of the people involved in this process, it was the death warrant for West Papua and ushered into existence a period of untold hardship, repression and genocide for the indigenous people of the land of West Papua in the name of Western greed and hypocrisy.
What needs to be remembered is that all of the UN resolutions cited above were not created in a vacuum, but were enacted against the backdrop of the Cold War, which created a situation where astute colonial leaders could play off one super power against another, a game that the Javanese excelled at.
The expansion of the West and its legacy
By 1892, almost every country was dominated by Europeans. Why? The first reason is superior military technology. Social technology, including the nation-state, bureaucracy, and proselytizing religion added to Europe’s increasing dominance. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all born in the Middle East—were easily transportable. These religions were all very different than the kind of native religions that existed in the Americas and the Pacific, which were place-based and local to each individual culture. When you can take your religion with you, it allows for a rationalization for conquest.
Basil Davidson in his book, The Black Man’s Burden: Africa And The Curse Of The Nation – State argues that the colonial system dispossessed Africa, and it’s the dispossession that matters. It’s not that you knock people on the head and take their goods; it’s that you dispossess them of their sense of person, their sense of value, their sense of history; everything, including religion. What the colonial systems put in place of old Africa were small dictatorial cliques, all modelled on the colonial services themselves. Now those cliques must be dispossessed in favour of participation. The ordinary citizen needs to feel that he or she has a word to say which will somehow or other be listened to. Interestingly what the Occupy Movement is protesting about in the United States is the reverse of this process. Inclusiveness in the United States and elsewhere in the West is being eroded due to a lack of equity in wealth creation.
Colin Leys takes this argument further. He argues that the modern history of Africa and the history of capitalism are bound together, beginning with the slave trade which some scholars say put the “capital” into “capitalism” and ending, according to Leys, with “a perhaps irreversible decline into barbarism”. Even in the fortunate societies of Europe and America, late capitalism is busy breaking down every bond between people, apart from Adam Smith’s economic bond of barter or exchange.
As this process goes forward, it produces social resentments, racism, chauvinism and xenophobia, hand in hand with a hunger for and admiration of political idealism. In Britain in the summer of 1996 the best illustrations of both tendencies concerned Africa. At the same time as politicians, press and public were lauding the achievements of Nelson Mandela during his state visit, the British press were demonising refugees and asylum seekers, many of them from Africa, in a blatant appeal to xenophobia and racism.
What this creates is a kind of social amnesia; the people in the west forget the part they played in the destruction of other’s societies, not only in Africa, but also in the Americas and the Pacific. The same forces that drove Western capitalism to destroy others cultures to enrich themselves are the same forces that are busy breaking down every bond between people, apart from Adam Smith’s economic bond of barter or exchange. This in turn creates or at least adds to the wealth of inequalities that lead to the Occupy Movement.
It’s the dispossession that matters
Thousands of people have reportedly fled in terror from a large area in Paniai, West Papua as a massive combined Police and military offensive attacked villages on December 13, attempting to break armed resistance from pro-independence guerrillas.
Credible human rights sources are claiming up to 20 local people have been shot dead by Indonesian security forces around the jungle centre of Markas Eduda, during a brutal operation that is reported to have razed 26 villages, and caused over 10,000 people to flee to the relative safety of Enaratoli.
Over four full strength combat battalions of Indonesian army (TNI) Kostrad commandos from Battalion 753, Brimob paramilitary police, and elite counter-terrorism troops from Detachment 88 – all units armed, trained, and supplied by the Australian Government – were deployed in a cordon to surround the headquarters of the Paniai Free Papua National Liberation Army (TPN-OPM), under the command of General Jhon Yogi.
West Papuan Media Alerts, December 14, 2011.
This is about dispossession. It’s about destroying culture, it’s about destroying the victim’s sense of person, their sense of value, their sense of history, everything, including religion. If the portability of their religion is one of the factors that have allowed imperial powers to flourish, it is the place-based religion that is local to each individual culture that causes a loss of a sense of person, of a sense of value, of a sense of history in indigenous people when they are forced to move on. This is genocide, perhaps more subtle than knocking people on the head and take their goods, but the end result is the same.
Who were the Third World leaders whom Thomas M. Franck argues so readily accepted Western Capital’s arbitrary creation of international boundaries in other peoples land? They were Davidson’s small dictatorial cliques, all modelled on the colonial services themselves. In the case of West Papua this small dictatorial clique first formed around Sukarno and then, through the machinations of international capital, formed around the murderous regime of Suharto. It was under Suharto that the now totally discredited, but none the less UN sanctioned Act of Free Choice, took place. The so called Act of Free Choice was a vote by 1025 men selected by the Indonesian military, the same military that had recently been involved in the murder of up to 500,000 of their fellow citizens. These 1025 West Papuan stooges of the Javanese military voted away the West Papuan’s rights and forced them to endure alien subjugation.
Indonesia and Australia as illegitimate states
The Javanese claim West Papua on the basis that it was administered by the Dutch as part of the Dutch East Indies. This administration was based on an outcome consisting of Protestant self righteousness and capitalist greed. It takes no account of other’s ethnicity, right to self-determination or justice. It was nothing more than a white man’s construct; a white man’s construct that found a place in post World War Two and Cold War politicking that argued that the best path forward for world peace and the growth of ‘freedom’ was for emerging nations to respect the artificial boundaries created by the area’s white, Christian and Capitalist invaders. Does this make a nation just? In the white, Christian, Capitalists construct of international law, yes! However, let’s consider for a moment the possibility that there is an aspect of justice that is independent of the preferences of the ruling clique. Is there some way for a modern day Socrates to demonstrate that what he does is pious even if it displeases the majority of people? Even more importantly, is it possible for a modern day Socrates to benefit the international community, even if he is condemned for it? These are questions that can only be answered individually by each us, with reference to our own sense of self worth and universal justice.
As with Indonesia, Australia is the construct of a white foreign invader who constructed a political outcome favorable to their desires at the expense of the legitimate owners of the Australian land mass, the 700 or so Indigenous groups who had been in quiet occupation of the land for up to 70,000 years before the white invader arrived. The difference between Australia and Indonesia is that the Javanese were able to throw the white man out and usurp his place in the rest of the Indonesian archipelago, while because of overwhelming numbers, Indigenous Australia like the indigenous peoples of West Papua remain victims of subtle and not so subtle forms of white, Christian and capitalist inspired forms of genocide.
I’ll leave readers to ponder a question I raised in This ephemeral thing we call democracy, regarding Socrates:
This dialogue asks us to ponder the consequences of the possibility that the city i.e. the majority could be wrong. Is there an aspect of piety that is independent of the preferences of the majority in the city? Is there some way for Socrates to demonstrate that what he does is pious even if it displeases the majority of people? Even more importantly, is it possible for Socrates to benefit the city, even if the city condemns him for it?
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