5,000 Peoples, Each Rightfully Sovereign


February 19, 1993|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON — London.--It was President Woodrow Wilson who, at the end of the First World War, threw that great secessionist fragmentation bomb, the principle of the self-determination of nations, into the arena of public debate. ''Every people should be left free to determine its own polity,'' he told the American Congress.

Nearly eight decades later we have a new American secretary of state, Warren Christopher, worrying, ''If we don't find some way that different ethnic groups can live together in a country, how many countries will we have? . . . We'll have 5,000.'' Perhaps American support for self-determination has reached the end of the road.

As an intellectual idea, the self-determination of people evolved in the 18th century, took practical form in the American Revolution, and became part and parcel of European nationalism in the 19th century. For people of the post-World War II generation, self-determination has meant the birth of the Third World, following colonization and the struggle for independence.

Anyone who still believes that self-determination will bring calm or order should have been disabused long ago by the upheavals brought on by the dissolution of the Turkish and Austro-Hungarian empires, even though an attempt was made to build the new states around historical, cultural and linguistic groupings.

The present rapid break-down of law and order in many parts of Africa, the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia and the rather less, so far, calamitous break-up of the Soviet Union have sent the likes of Warren Christopher into a tizzy of apprehension and raised again the great debate about when to intervene.

This is not the first generation to struggle with the pluses and minuses of intervention in ethnic disputes. In 1860, France sent an expedition to Syria after massacres in Lebanon. The Western powers intervened in Bosnia in 1875 and Cyprus in 1878 to protect Christian provinces of the Ottoman Empire. A draft code of international law prepared in 1888 by Bluntschli, the German jurist, founder of the still prestigious Institute of International Law, stated that, where human rights are denied in a country, there is a right of foreign intervention.

The whole concept of minority rights was laid down by treaty in eastern Europe by the allies and associated powers at the end of the first World War. These treaties led to the establishment of Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia. The League of Nations was the guarantor: ''The provisions for the protection of minorities are inviolable . . . and cannot be modified . . . without the approval of the majority of the Council.''

Nothing bound the League to intervene when its provisions were ignored. Sometimes it did; more often, it did not. It was quite unable to stop the rise of Hitler, who played on the anomalies of this careful arrangement as part of his rise to power.

Hitler notwithstanding, the post-World War I division of Europe was tidy compared with what happened after World War II. When France, Britain, Portugal and the Netherlands pulled out of their empires there was scant effort to sort out those people whom colonialism temporarily had thrown together, often in the most -- arbitrary fashion.

The worst legacy bequeathed to our age was the British inability to adjudicate rival Arab and Jewish claims to Palestine. In India, the new government inherited from the British raj political power over a wide number of unassimilated border peoples like the Nagas and Mizos. And Africa was left with 50 nations after a short 80-year spell of European colonialism, where before there were over 800 languages and even more self-governing groups.

The right to foreign intervention when these thin seams come apart -- in Somalia, Liberia, Zaire and Yugoslavia -- is gaining widespread acceptance. The most forceful proponent of humanitarian intervention is the rising star of French politics, Bernard Kouchner, the minister for health and humanitarian affairs.

Intervening with relief supplies is one thing. Peacekeeping when diplomacy has cleared the road ahead and fixed a truce another. But imposing a peace when a minority is being savaged by a majority is a doubtful task, given the likelihood of the frequency with which it will occur. If one could be sure that Somalia and Yugoslavia were the only cases for 25 years then maybe it would be a different matter. But everything points to them being one of many, violent, tearings asunder of the artificial state, particularly in Africa, parts of Asia and perhaps in the ex-Soviet Union, too.

I do not say with Nietzche, ''There are whole peoples who have failed'' and close my eyes. But as horror stories mount daily, I have become convinced that all the outside world can do is soften the edges, heal the wounded, care for the refugees, police the truces and help negotiate the inevitable compromise.

B6 Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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