Europe looks set to get
another new nation, after Montenegro voted narrowly on Sunday to renew
the independence that it relinquished to Yugoslavia after the First
World War. Official figures put the yes vote, on a very high turnout, at 55.4% just above the 55% threshold insisted on by the EU.

As Macedonian prime minister Vlado Buckovski said (according to The Age), “Yesterday we witnessed the end of project Yugoslavia, which was formed at the time with good intentions.”

Peaceful
negotiation and democratic vote, of course, is exactly how these issues
should be settled. There seems little doubt that such a process will
shortly lead to the independence of Kosovo, another legacy of the old
Yugoslavia.

I’m currently in Slovakia, another country whose
independence came as rather a surprise to the international community.
At the time, polls suggested that the majority actually wanted to
preserve the union (Czechoslovakia, as it was), but the politicians
were unable to agree on terms for doing so. Yet Slovakian independence
has been a real success, and the country is now stable and economically
healthy.

In fact, I can’t think of a single case in the modern
era where self-determination has been a failure: where a country voted
to break away from an existing union but it was subsequently seen as a
mistake. That could be why all members of the United Nations have
committed themselves to the self-determination of peoples as one of the
fundamental principles of international relations.

Yet
governments everywhere continue to resist self-determination in
practice. Australia, despite being a founding member of the UN, is no
better than the rest, with its craven acquiescence in the Indonesian
demand for perpetual recognition of its occupation of West Papua.

It
needs to be said again and again and again until somehow it gets
through: there is no argument against self-determination for West Papua
that does not apply equally well to East Timor, or Montenegro, or
Slovakia, or Norway, or scores of other countries whose rights nobody
now disputes. Whether or not West Papuan independence is a good thing
should be their choice, no-one else’s.

Peter Fray

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