Kosovo, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Chechnya, the Bakassi Peninsula. All disputed territories but only one (the last named), a sizable oil-rich wedge of land lying between Nigeria and Cameroon, has been taken to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for adjudication. Why not the others? To my mind, I can think of no good reason apart from, in the latest conflagration, hubris on the Russian side and an inflated sense of self-importance on the Georgian side, partly borne of America’s encouragement.
Six years ago, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo (on whom I reported for the summer issue of World Policy Journal) was confronted with growing tensions with neighboring Cameroon over the Bakassi Peninsula, long ruled by Nigeria. In a show of restraint, he decided to resist the advice of his minister of defense, who pushed for a military solution, and turned the dispute over to the ICJ. Local newspapers ridiculed Obasanjo and public opinion was nationalistic, but he held his course and did so even when the court ruled in Cameroon’s favor. Yesterday, Bakassi was formally turned over to Cameroon.
Unlike South Ossetia, there was something to fight over—large quantities of oil—but Nigeria swallowed its pride. This doesn’t happen as often as it should, but it does happen.
It is often said that the twentieth century was the bloodiest in the history of mankind. It was. Nevertheless, there is another rarely told narrative to the last century. The truth is that, over a hundred years, states committed themselves to a far more just, humane, and peaceable world than their practice often suggested. Dorothy Jones in her carefully researched book, Codes of Peace, argues that there is a “hidden history” of the last century, “the record of an un-noticed breakthroughs in treaty-making when the great warrior states have adopted apparently minor stipulations that, in fact, represent agreement to significant restraint on their sovereignty.”
The League of Nations rests in a perpetual historical cloud because of its failure to deal with Germany. But it did resolve the Aaland Island dispute between Finland and Sweden—which mattered as much at the time as Kosovo does today. And, most notably, throughout an extraordinarily tense situation in 1935, an international military force kept order during the plebiscite that returned the Saar to Germany. (To gauge the passions involved, think not of South Ossetia, but of returning Ulster to Ireland today.)
All these inflamed disputes were settled by arbitration. The vexed issue of Aaland Island in the Baltic Sea led to one of the most carefully crafted of all international documents, one that has been drawn on over the years since as the template for resolving competing claims by neighboring countries.
The Swedish inhabitants had demanded that they be allowed self-determination from their Finnish rulers. “To concede to minorities,” the League’s eminent advisers concluded, “whether of language or religion, or to any fractions of the population, the right to withdrawal from the community to which they belong, because it is their wish or grand pleasure, would be to destroy order and stability within states and to inaugurate anarchy in international life.”
And, by this same token, the British government supported, in the face of an outcry at home, the right of Nigeria to put down the revolt of the dissident state of Biafra in the 1960s. It is why the Big Five of the Security Council are united in accepting the territorial integrity of Iraq. And historians like to rub our faces in the fact that Hitler claimed with his invasion of Sudetenland that he was merely applying Wilsonian principles of self-determination for German minorities outside the Reich.
If the West had not pushed so hard for the independence of the breakaway province of Kosovo, flying in the face of this long accepted wisdom (with Moscow pushing the other way), perhaps Russia would not have found it so easy to justify its invasion of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
In this instance, the course of international law goes against Russia. Georgia should complete its withdrawal and then challenge Moscow to refer their dispute to the International Court of Justice.
Nigeria, yesterday’s pariah state, can hold its head high. In the same week that saw Russia thumb its nose at international law, Nigeria has followed legal precepts to the letter. As the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said yesterday, the Bakassi agreement is “a model for the negotiated settlement of border disputes.” Moscow should take notice.
Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist and a contributing editor of Prospect magazine, London. His most recent book is Conundrums of Humanity (Martinus Nijhoff, 2007).