Monday, March 24, 2008

Canada and the recognition of Kosovo

Ottawa joined a number of capitals last week in officially recognizing Kosovo as a country. Unlike most states that did so, however, Canada faces its own dilemma concerning domestic constituents — in this case Quebec — that have long sought independence, and the implications of that decision could be far reaching. So why did Ottawa officially recognize Kosovo, when it knew fully well that doing so was bound to reawaken the separatism question in Quebec?

Two principal reasons come to mind.

First, as a general rule Canada abides by the principle of self-determination contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (at least when doing so coincides with its own national interests) and has a long history of support for movements that sought to defend the national identity of a people.

Second is the fact that Canada was a participant in NATO’s air campaign against Serbia to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999. It would have been embarrassing for it to have fought the war only to refuse to recognize the people in whose name it took part in Operation Allied Force. Not to mention the problems it could have created within the alliance at a time when it faces serious divisions over Afghanistan.

The problem with Ottawa’s decision, however, is that it is based on double standards. Why, some would rightly ask, recognize Kosovo, but not Chechnya, or Taiwan, especially when, as the world’s 16th largest economy, the latter would make a far more viable independent state, in the legal sense of the term, than a number of countries that have received official recognition in recent years, including Macedonia, East Timor and now Kosovo. As stated above, Canada’s adherence to the principle of self-determination is the result of a cost-versus-benefit analysis: What will be gained by recognition? The items are many, including (but not limited to) moral credibility, a new ally, new business opportunities and, in the case of Kosovo, the cohesiveness of the NATO alliance. Conversely, will there be negative repercussions? In this case, this means risking the alienation of countries or groups that disagree with the decision, both abroad and within ethnic minorities domestically. Only by weighing the pros and cons will a country decide whether or not to recognize a country. The cost of recognizing Taiwan, for example, despite the boost it would do to Canada’s image, would be too high at the moment, given the impact it would have on trade relations with China. Recognizing Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia and East Timor, on the other hand, while alienating Russia and Serbia in the first three instances and Indonesia in the last, was a cost Ottawa was willing to absorb and which was made all the more easier because of the quasi universal support those causes have received and the fact that those new countries were born in war, their populations repressed by the stronger party.

Which raises what is perhaps the most important question, one that very few have asked to date, which is the utility of violence. Many forget that throughout the 1990s and in early 1999, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), then a small rebel movement fighting for independence, launched pinprick attacks against Serb forces, hoping that the response would be disproportionate — and it was, with the world media soon bringing back images and dispatches of mass graves and rampant human rights violations. Many of the people who now constitute the Kosovo government are former KLA members, but had history chosen a different course, the KLA today could very well have been considered a terrorist organization. While the Serb response to the KLA taunts was inexcusable, we must nevertheless not forget that to a large extent the successful realization of statehood came from an initial recourse to violence to publicize the conflict and draw in the international community, in this instance the NATO air campaign, followed by substantial NATO and UN peacekeeping forces. Had it not been for he KLA’s well-orchestrated invitation to violence, it is hard to imagine that Kosovars would have a country of their own today.

The danger in this, now that Kosovo has been embraced by a large number of countries, is that other “liberation groups,” in Quebec and elsewhere, might reach the conclusion that the only way to achieve statehood is to turn to violence, in the hope of repeating the Kosovo experience. In the case of Canada, it is highly unlikely Ottawa would use massive force to quell a separatist movement in Quebec — at least not to the extent that was seen in Kosovo in 1999. But some lunatics or deranged individuals could nevertheless see violence as the only option. Should, at some point in future, the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait become untenable, a similar scenario might not be impossible in Taiwan either, and in this case the likelihood of disproportionate retaliation would be much higher.

While the recognition of Kosovo is not, in and of itself, a negative outcome, it nonetheless increases the possibility that separatist groups that so far have limited themselves to peaceful means may eventually decide that force is the only option. And thanks to the Kosovo precedent, they could be forgiven for believing that it is.

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