The dark side of self-determination
For someone closely involved in promoting Kashmiri self-determination in the United Nations and other forums, one can imagine the chuckles of satisfaction in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs at the affixation of this term to a Pakistani province. Finally, it would be said, these Pakistanis are being paid back in the same coin; the latter day champions of self-determination should now prepare to experience its destructive potential.
Indian satisfaction would be understandable but entirely misplaced given the fundamentally flawed premise on which the very concept of Balochi self-determination rests. Taken to its logical conclusion, the indiscriminate application of this principle could end up unravelling many modern states whose demographic composition does not conform to the strict criterion of nationhood.
The postcolonial period saw the emergence of numerous states which were home to diverse cultural and ethnic groups at varying stages of integration and development. If self-determination is valid for Balochistan, it is equally relevant for the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, the Basques in Spain, the tribes of north-eastern India, the Chechens in Russia and many more. Seen from this prism, self-determination can become a deadly tool in the hands of powerful vested interests to cause disintegration of lawfully constituted states as happened recently in Sudan.
The concept of self-determination, operationally sanctified by President Woodrow Wilson, was essentially meant to provide a political platform for subjugated countries and regions to achieve freedom from their colonial masters. This powerful principle inspired the colonised peoples of Africa, Asia and the Middle East to liberate themselves from the clutches of imperial domination and acquire independent statehood. Historically, self-determination was seen and accepted as a rallying cry for freedom from colonial rule. The axiom that peoples have a right to choose their own destiny has to be read in this context.
Over the years, some variants of self-determination emerged following the liberations of the forties and the fifties. Kashmir and Palestine are the obvious examples. In both cases, the differences in their specific historical antecedents notwithstanding, a distinct group of people were kept under forcible occupation against their express wishes and in defiance of international law as enunciated in the Charter of the United Nations. In the case of the Palestinians, a historically settled nation was driven from its homeland and their land occupied by use of force. In Kashmir, the people of the former princely state were denied the right of choice specifically granted to them by the United Nations Security Council.
Kashmiri and Palestinian self-determination is legally and historically valid, its non-fulfilment being a stigma on the credentials of those who pride themselves as the custodians of human rights and superior civilisation norms
By equating Balochistan with Kashmir and Palestine or the erstwhile colonies, Dana Rohrabacher has tried to wilfully emasculate the universally accepted definition of self-determination. He has sought to use this inherently anti-imperial tool to legitimise the disintegration of lawfully constituted states. If left unchecked, this insidious variant of a great concept could become a vehicle for destabilisation and fragmentation to the detriment of the established concepts of statehood.
How should Pakistan respond to this turn of events? Naturally, the worrisome situation in the province will have to be decisively addressed. To be credible, the proposed All Parties Conference would need to be inclusive and result-oriented. Reiteration of good intentions unaccompanied by ground action would be self defeating. Robust federal intervention would need to be carefully modulated since in a conflict situation the line separating the legitimate from the unlawful is often blurred.
Press reports indicate that the Foreign Office intends to raise this issue internationally. This would be a gigantic blunder and, if anything, would help place the issue of Balochi self-determination on the global agenda. We should take a lesson from Indian mishandling of Kashmir in the multilateral arena. Had India shown the wisdom of avoiding knee jerk reaction whenever the issue was raised Kashmir might not have resonated for so long in conference halls around the world. By its overreaction, India played right into our hands.
Pakistan must avoid this path of folly. The temptation to pursue a muscular approach should not override the subtler demands of statecraft. We have made our views known to the US administration which has already distanced itself from the Congressman’s initiative. These demarches should be followed up quietly but focus must remain on the urgency of alleviating Balochi grievances. Diplomatic overkill must be resisted lest it helps transform a purely domestic matter into an international issue.
Despite the spurious nature of Dana Rohrabacher’s resolution, the fact remains that it has been tabled in the legislative chamber of a mighty superpower which has crucial strategic interests in this region. The resolution adds another layer to Washington’s already considerable leverage which can be appropriately orchestrated to advance these interests. How earnestly Pakistan chooses to resolve Balochi complaints and the nature of its contribution to the Afghan reconciliation process would most likely determine the resolution’s future trajectory in the US Congress.
The writer is Pakistan’s former Ambassador to the United Nations and European Union. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org