The limits to self determination and independence.
presented to:

A Conference at the Glasnost Foundation,

June 29 - July 1st 1999

Richard Wilson
Department of Physics
Harvard University.

    Firstly I thank the organizers for inviting me to this conference. The importance of it has been underscored by the refusal of Mr Edvuard Schervanadse to allow the conference to be held in Batumi, Georgia, as originally planned.

    I want to discuss the technological facts that make us increasingly interdependent, the implications that these have for human rights, and why a special convention on self determination of peoples may be a useful addition to the list of human rights that are internationally accepted.

    There are scientific developments in three fields that have already begun to influence us and together they will make enormous changes. I do not think we can stop these changes even if we want to but we should be prepared for them even though no one knows the full extent of the revolution that they are causing. They are in:

(1) Communication technology
(2) Biology and
(3) in physics.

    The new communications technology - itself deriving from applications of physics - ensures that anyone in the world with minimal equipment can be full aware of everything that is happening. All that is needed is a laptop computer with a satellite telephone line. Moreover that line will be more reliable than the existing local telephone service. We have, and use, technology to watch each other. It is hard to hide. Even 30 years ago a photograph of Moscow from a satellite 100 miles in the sky enabled me to count the number of people in line to enter Lenin's tomb. There is an inevitable openness or Glasnost - and creates an interdependence which will affect all of our lives.

    Within very few years we will have sequenced the human genome. This will bring the opportunity to cure or to kill. Biological weapons are true weapons of mass destruction and must be controlled if the human race is to survive. We will probably soon synthesize cocaine substitutes which can be made cheaply and in facilities that are harder to identify than the poppy fields - just as the manufacture amphetamines now very easily. That will make the international cooperation on the "drug war" discussed yesterday even more important. But we can also wipe out pests - such as locusts - which eat our crops. But only if nations cooperate. When Ethiopia had a civil war cooperation was suspended and the effect on the neighbors - an increase of locusts - was pronounced.

    Physics has brought us in the last 50 years nuclear medicine, nuclear powered electricity but of course the atomic bomb. The world has fortunately recognized the supreme importance of keeping nuclear weapons in check. More nations have signed the non-proliferation treaty that any other. By signing this treaty each state gives up some sovereignty and becomes dependent on the others. None of us would support self determination if that included a right to make atomic bombs and threaten the rest of the world. (Parenthetically I note my belief that the USA and Russia have a long way to go in meeting their obligations to the world on this matter. Even after START 2 each country will have over 3000 nuclear bombs in their arsenals. I was scared when each had 50 bombs. No more should be needed as a deterrent.)

    All of these human activities produce transboundary pollution. The Chernobyl accident brought that fact dramatically to world attention but fine particles from the burning of fossil fuels travel 3000 miles and more and cause more respiratory deaths each year that the cancer deaths caused by Chernobyl once. The spectre of global warming from increased CO2 emissions also needs concerted global action. So we see that if society is to survive we have collective rights as well as individual rights. That has always been so. 2000 years ago we sent lepers out into the desert and more recently we sent yellow fever victims to off shore islands to prevent them infecting us: this was a clear limitation of individual human rights for the common good. But we must be careful NOT to make collective rights superior to individual rights. Andrey Sakharov insisted that collective rights should follow from individual rights, not the other way around. Indeed I believe that one of the major problems with your previous government. Who is to decide what the collective rights are but individuals freely expressing their ideas? It should not be a self appointed clique.

    The problem becomes logically simpler when we recognize that with human rights come human responsibilities. What they are can be deduced from the old and simple admonition "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". This correctly suggests that there will be variations in the degree of independence a group will desire. It also suggests the importance of discussing - over a period of time - the advantages and disadvantages of different degrees of independence. All too often the advantages are seen and NOT the disadvantages.

    The question before this meeting is whether (and how) we should EXPLICITLY add the right of self determination of peoples to the list of human rights agreed by most nations? It was always implicit in, for example the 4th Geneva Convention on Human Rights. If we agree that self determination should be added, I believe we should emphasize explicitly the responsibilities that attach to these rights.

I suggest therefore an explicit article in the draft proposed convention:

"with these rights come responsibilities to the rest of society. If a group exercises its right to self determination, it must be assumed that any new entity thereby created will automatically adhere to all the treaties and conventions that the older nation accepted - such as the 4th Geneva Convention on Human Rights, the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty and agreements to combat international crime such as INTERPOL"

    Such an addition would, for example, make clear that no group can be permitted by the world to set up an independent state to create biological or nuclear weapons, or to grow and manufacture narcotic drugs to pervert or dominate the world.

    I am not a theorist. I like experimental physics and I look at data and ask what the data tell us. Therefore I will discuss how these principles might apply to the various situations before us. I believe it is only by discussing actual situations, not only of peoples seeking some degree of independence but of people who see advantages in staying together, that we can understand the proper implementation methods. Implementation is clearly by establishing - and changing when appropriate - a set of laws to which countries are expected to adhere. One of these, the recognition of national boundaries by the UN, must clearly not be an absolute. However any violation of (or even peaceful change in) national boundaries, or breakup of an accepted state, must be considered very seriously by the world - and I would here suggest that the lead be taken by the whole UN (even if it means delay) rather than a smaller group such as NATO even if that group is large, strong and powerful.

    One of the clearest situations is that in the Sudan so well and distressingly described by Lady Caroline Cox. The peoples of the south want to determine their own future. They have been persecuted for 20 years by the government in Khartoum. My many Moslem friends all agree that this persecution, in the name of Islam, is contrary to the teachings of Islam. Every indication is that if given their freedom the breakaway groups would gladly accept their responsibilities (although some responsibilities like adherence to NPT might be hard for them to understand). Adding the article on responsibilities would remove any last vestige of justification by the Khartoum government. Caroline has very modest proposals for action here. I would hope that we could persuade the arab nations to take the lead here, acting of course through the UN.

    In Moscow the problem of Chechnya is very much in everyone's mind. Until I came to this conference my main knowledge of Chechnya was from reading Tolstoy's Hadji Murad. But this seems to be more knowledge than was possessed by Mr Yelstin! (Similarly of course Mr Clinton had read little about the Balkans). It seems clear that there will be a separate government in due course - although not necessarily a distinct nation in the sense of one that could be admitted to the UN. The residual problem seems to be a doubt that a Chechen government can deliver on a promise to meet its obligations to others. If that had been properly and explicitly raised four years ago it could have been discussed and the help and assistance of other disinterested nations could have been sought.

    The world has failed the people of Yugoslavia in the last 10 years. Not just some of people - all of them. The world encouraged the breakup of Yugoslavia - a sovereign nation and member of the UN - and recognized Croatia as a separate government BEFORE any procedures were in place to protect the rights of the orthodox Christian minority, and without any discussion of what were the appropriate borders were for an independent state. (Some people argue with some verisimilitude that Germany, the first nation to recognize Croatia, was trying to undo the military defeats in 1918 and 1945). Indeed Mr Tudjman's cry of Croatia for the Croatians, his choice of a flag similar to that of thee Ustashe and his praising of Pavelic gave the orthodox Serbs legitimate cause for concern - and should have alerted us. The world should have demanded a period of education and discussion especially since no major repression by the central government of Yugoslavia was actually taking place. The result of the world errors we all know. There was a bloody war, in which both sides were wrong, and 500,000 Serbs were ethnically cleansed by various means. Bosnians of all religions (but principally the Moslems) were killed and humiliated. Worse still the world did not admit its errors and NATO has recently compounded them.

    The massacre at Sumgait was clearly the start of the recent problems between Azeris and Armenians, and led to forcible deportations of hundreds of thousands on each side. Then the Azerbaijan government clearly violated the Universal declaration on human rights and the 4th Geneva Convention by refusing to treat all persons within its jurisdiction equally. The Karabagh exercise of the right of self determination - not yet accepted by the rest of the world - should be recognized as a failure of the Azerbaijan government to follow this and similar conventions - particularly just after independence in 1991 when they revoked the autonomy of Nogorny Karabakh.

    Of course we all know that most governments fail to follow the 4th Geneva convention on occasion. Elena Bonner thinks the convention is unworkable. Maybe. But we should clearly be concerned at repeated and continuous violations. In 1967 the Government of Israel took the west bank of the Jordan river from the Jordan Government by force. The Israelis have not since then been able to decide what to do about the people there. I have talked to many Palestinians. I believe that most would have become loyal Israeli citizens, as are the Israeli Arabs, if citizenship had been offered to them - which it was not. It was a failure of the Israeli government to treat all persons, residing in the land they claim to govern, equally (a duty under the 4th Geneva convention) that leads to the need, almost universally accepted, for self determination. In the present discussions of the future of the Palestinian people we must remember it does not matter whether Mr Barak and Mr Arafat sign an agreement and Mr Clinton smiles approvingly. If the agreement does not accord with the world's view of human rights no status can be final.

    Northern Ireland poses interesting problems of self determination. The two groups are ethnically similar but differ in religion and in cultural habits based thereon (divorce, abortion). Thus we see we must consider that any group is entitled to self determination, and not merely those with different racial characteristics. The groups are geographically intertwined and each group wants to determine its own future but both groups have problems in recognizing their responsibilities. Progress seems to be made only when outsiders (Ahern, Blair and Mitchell) actively participate.

    Quebec is an interesting and easier problem. If Quebec eventually separates from Canada it will do so with peaceful democratic means which are slowly being developed. The world need have no fear that the Quebecois will fail in their responsibilities. But it is now clear that the borders will change. The agreement with the Intuit Indians was with the Federal Government, and the Intuit has expressed a preference for remaining a part of federal Canada. Whether the Quebecois will decide to secede once all these factors are clear remains to be seen.

    The USA is not free from problems. 150 years ago when we made treaties with the Indians, human rights were less on the agenda and the USA was very brutal. We swept the Indians into the less profitable lands. Liberals thought that the future was to educate the Indians and let them meld into white man's society. To a large extent this has happened including for example a friend of mine who is President of Queens' College in New York. But other Indians preferred to stay on the reservation and preserve their culture. Indeed we now encourage this and rejoice in the diversity of human cultures. Some tribes have found coal and oil on their marginal land. But one, The Skull Valley Goshutes has a beautiful (almost) useless reservation of 200,000 acres 60 miles SW of Salt Lake City. But the Chief, Mr Leon Bear is a bright man. He found a use which will bring money and employment to his people - temporary storage of high level radioactive waste. Governor Leavitt of the State of Utah has opposed this - although he has no jurisdiction.

    I have assembled a group of 22 scientists, including 6 Nobel Laureates, 2 former Ambassadors, 3 former nuclear regulators, and an astronaut to form "Scientists for Secure Waste Storage' to support the Goshutes. As a consequence the anti-Indian opposition of Governor Leavitt is shown to have no scientific basis at all, and he is merely objecting to a group of "uppity Indians" in their practical application of self determination. This is a very clear example of limited self determination. The Goshutes serve in the US army and accept federal jurisdiction.

    As noted above all nations are now interdependent and self determination is inherently limited. It would probably be helpful if the limitations were made clear by the international community when the claim for self determination is made. The issue before us is whether a convention on self determination would be a helpful addition to the battery of accepted human rights. I believe that it would be but ONLY if the responsibilities are outlined and the limitations are made clear.

    Accepting the right of self determination is not easy. On my small street we have a rich diversity in which we rejoice. Across is an Indian couple. Next to them a Chinese, then a Russian couple. An American married to a Czech. Further along a family whose Jewish ancestors emigrated from Russia 90 years ago. But other persons are not so fortunate as I, and have suspicions of their neighbors. Red herrings will always be raised, and suspicions enhanced, by those who want to persecute the "others" who are, in some way, different.

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