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By Peter Stevenson MEMBERS of Volunteer Doctors Cyprus have treated around 350 people at their free clinic in Nicosia since it opened three months ago, while two more, one in Paphos and one in Polis are due to open today. Limassol also has a free clinic, which was opened only last month, and plans have been drawn ...
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SOME 10 days ago, foreign minister Ioannis Kasoulides raised expectations by announcing the possibility of a deal with Turkey for the opening of the fenced off area of Famagusta, for the return of its inhabitants. In exchange the Cyprus government would agree to the opening of Tymbou airport to direct flights. ...
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By George Psyllides PRIVATE auditors have expressed doubt the electricity authority (EAC) could be considered a going concern and have asked its board to draft a credible plan to tackle the problem, according to the auditor-general’s 2012 report on the semi-state company. Among other issues, ...
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Cyprus Internet Directory [ The right to independence ]

The right to independence

KOSOVO is about to declare independence from Serbia. Most member states of the EU (and the United States) are in favour. A small minority of EU countries, including Cyprus and Romania, are against. Another small minority has not yet taken sides. Russia, Serbia’s major ally, is also against.

Cyprus and Romania oppose independence for Kosovo and are likely to withhold recognition of any new entity because they are afraid that that would legitimise similar claims by ethnically different groups that live within their territories.

The principle they adhere to is simple and quite credible. Unilateral declaration of independence by sub-national groups undermines the integrity of the nation state. The international legal system that has been established over the past 100 years is based on the concept that sovereignty can be exercised only by states and that states have absolute control over what happens within their borders. Indeed, the state has monopoly of power and can even take away the lives of its citizens.

But the absolute power of the state has been gradually tempered, first, by the UN declaration on fundamental human rights and, then, by recent, more liberal interpretations of such rights. The international intervention in the former Yugoslavia in the early and late 1990s was justified by the moral obligation not to allow mass killings and genocide. There is now near consensus among legal scholars that the sovereignty of the state and its absolute internal power are constrained by its obligation to behave humanely.

But what does it mean to behave humanely? Broadly, the state must protect its citizens and promote their welfare. However, it is debateable that outside North America, Europe and a few other countries, the state actively pursues policies that promote the welfare of the citizens. In fact, in most non-western countries and cultures, the rights of the individual are subordinated to the collective interest, whether that is represented by the state, society, the tribe or the family. In Turkey you go to jail if you criticise the nation. In Japan you are socially ostracised if you fail the expectations of your group. In Iran you get stoned if you cast shame on your family.

Given these very diverse perceptions of how the state is supposed to behave, the obligations of the state are in practice expressed in negative terms; a few things that it may not do, rather what it should do. This largely means that most countries confer recognition on other countries and their governments when they fulfil a handful of very basic conditions: they command broad support from their inhabitants and they follow a due process when they deprive individuals from their property and lives. Forget the rhetoric about promoting the welfare of citizens and respecting their wishes. After all, most countries have regimes with serious democratic deficiencies.

This, of course, does not help us much to decide what to do when a minority or a region wants to break away and govern itself. On the one hand, if any minority could declare independence most countries would end up being much smaller. And where would you stop; at the region, the town or the village? There are cities which are larger and richer than whole countries. Conceivably they could muster enough resources to run an army and a diplomatic service which are the main trappings of the state. There are also regions and towns which are ethnically so different from the rest of the country that they can justifiably claim they have a distinct national character that can be expressed only through independent existence and institutions.

Expressing the right to independence in terms of differences from the rest of the country or in terms of capacity to run a government and fund an army eventually lead us to a blind alley. There is hardly a homogeneous country. More importantly, countries or regions that start homogeneous slowly become more diverse, economically, culturally and ethnically. This is the unavoidable effect of the movement of ideas, trends, commerce and migration, all of which cross whatever artificial frontiers are drawn by man.

A much better approach to determine when an ethnic group or region has the right to determine its own affairs is to follow the principle enshrined in the American declaration of independence. I quote here the relevant part:

“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government… Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes … But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”

The Founding Fathers of the United States put it succinctly. Ultimately the legitimacy of the state to govern stems from the consent of those who are governed. In secular states, there is no higher authority than the willingness of the people to tolerate their rulers. The principle that emerges from the American declaration of independence is that people have the right to self determination when their government is not capable or willing to protect their inalienable rights. If we apply this principle to Kosovo we must conclude that there are non-trivial doubts whether the Serbian government has that capacity or willingness. However, it also too early to say with certainty that it is impossible to have an institutional arrangement, short of independence, that provides the necessary safeguards to the population of Kosovo and gradually builds trust so that Kosovars and Serbs can cooperate within the same state. Boris Tadic, the pro-European president that was elected last Sunday, may be more willing to accommodate Kosovo. But he won by a slight majority against a hard-line nationalist opponent and any softer stance on Kosovo will have to be supported by the parliament and the population at large.

Given the fact that in Cyprus we are also supposed to search for institutional arrangements that will safeguard the rights of all ethnic communities, it seems to me that the Cypriot government would have been more credible to its European partners had it argued along the lines I outlined above; that the Kosovars and the Serbians had not yet exhausted all possibilities for finding a workable institutional arrangement.

The dogmatic line that has been followed by the Cypriot government, as made evident by the public pronouncements of its Minister of Foreign Affairs, has so far failed to convince other EU countries who take the more pragmatic view that if independence of Kosovo will bring about peace, then there is no point arguing about principles. As put to me by a Brussels-based official, if we are so concerned about upholding legal principles, why have we never spoken against Kurdish ambitions to establish an independent state in Turkey?

n Phedon Nicolaides is Professor at the European Institute of Public Administration in Maastricht (NL) and Visiting Professor at the Cyprus International Institute of Management

(Source: Cyprus Mail)

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