On February 21, the Russian Federation recognized two breakaway territories of Ukraine as independent countries, using that recognition as the pretext for the use of the Russian army in Ukraine. This marks the latest effort of the Russian Federation to abuse and misuse the right of self-determination, perverting the world’s primary bulwark against colonialism into an instrument of colonial policy. The experience of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) and its members highlights the falsity of the justification for recognition of these territories and a pathway to preventing such actions in the future.
UNPO members are firmly committed to the idea, underlying the creation of the United Nations, that the proper implementation of the right to self-determination is critical to achieving peace and sustainable development. Through the UNPO Covenant, members of the UNPO collectively recognize that implementation of “the right to self-determination … should be based on its broadest and most comprehensive understanding; including autonomy, devolution, and power-sharing, and federalism in all its forms, rejecting thereby a narrow focus and charges of secessionism.” And in a recent resolution, the 2020 UNPO General Assembly recognized that non-violent dialogue leading to internationally-recognized referendums, such as that which occurred in Bougainville (a former UNPO member), “present the best opportunity for the full realization of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including in particular SDG Goal 16 to promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies.”
In this context, the instrumentalization of the right to self-determination as a means of colonial expansion contravenes the basic principles agreed to by the world's leading self-determination movement and challenges the very foundation of the international system. It is also not the first such effort by the Russian Federation. As noted in a resolution by the 2015 UNPO General Assembly, the illegal occupation of Crimea was justified by a highly dubious referendum that systematically excluded the indigenous Crimean Tatars, UNPO members. Its actions in Crimea have done nothing but bring misery to the people of Crimea, and the Crimean Tatars in particular, leaving them regularly persecuted and increasingly isolated.
This time, the Russian Federation's recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk does not appear to have been based on a referendum, but rather on highly dubious claims of genocide. And yet, as the experience of the UNPO members such as East Timor and Kosova shows, more than mere unilateral assertions of international crimes are needed to justify intervention and recognition. Those cases followed the findings of internationally-recognized investigations that atrocities were being committed by the controlling state and resulted, first, in United Nations administration. Nothing of the sort has occurred here.
Ultimately, while the Russian Federation’s colonial expansion cannot be justified in any terms, the international community has placed itself in a position where the Russian Federation can act as it has. As the UNPO’s expert opinion to the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights on the case of Western Sahara shows, there is an affirmative obligation on all states to promote and protect the right to self-determination everywhere. In that regard, the UNPO has asked the international community for a robust response to the illegal occupation of Crimea and for a mechanism within the United Nations through which the right to self-determination can be properly discussed, agreed and implemented.
Sadly, we have witnessed a gradual normalization of relations with the Russian Federation in recent years despite its continued illegal grip on Crimea. Meanwhile, leading members of the international community, particularly within the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council, have consistently ignored the urgent need for UN reform in favor of their narrow self-interests. Thus, today, the island nation of Guam remains in the UN Decolonization process in the face of UN concern, the Chagos Islands remain a colonial-possession despite a ruling of the International Court of Justice, Tibet remains illegally occupied for over 70 years while China expands its empire, and the illegal occupation of Crimea has been nearly forgotten while the world has been pushed to the brink of war by the Russian Federation’s colonial ambitions.
In the short term, the further colonial expansionism of the Russian Federation must be prevented. This will require strong coordinated efforts to isolate the country internationally through trade and diplomatic means. A return to normalization of relations, as has been occurring in the case of the illegal Crimean occupation in recent years, cannot happen again. But when the dust settles on this crisis, long-lasting peace will only be achievable once there is international recognition of the new forms of colonialism that all of today’s powers are complicit in, and an international mechanism, akin to the decolonization process at the end of the Second World War, has been created to resolve it and place the right to self-determination once again at the heart of the international system.
-- Ralph J. Bunche
General Secretary, UNPO
Photo: Wikimedia Commons, "Occupation of the Crimea is a shame of Russia", 2014 anti-war protests in Russia.
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