Aug 01, 2001

Self-determination Conference examines implementation of Self-Determination by United Nations mechanisms

The 3rd Conference on Self-Determination and Conflict Transformation was held in Geneva at the Palais Wilson from 29 - 30 July 2001. The conference was jointly organised by Center UNESCO de Catalunya, the UNPO, Pax Romana and the Sami Council. It brought together various UN experts to look at the implementation of the right to self-determination by the United Nations, and provided an occasion for unrepresented nations and indigenous peoples (including UNPO members), to put forward their experiences of the relevant UN mechanisms. Over eighty people attended the two-day conference.

Delegates focussed on the extent of the implementation of the right to self-determination by various UN treaty and charter bodies, the main difference between the two being the fact that treaty bodies monitor states' specific commitments to certain treaties whereas charter bodies are more open-ended. Martin Scheinin (Finland) of the Committee on Human Rights, and Yuri Reshtov (Russian Federation) of the Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination, spoke on the various mechanisms available in treaty bodies (e.g. which treaties mention the right to self-determination, what interpretations of it existed etc.), and suggested some possible avenues to be explored. Iulia Motoc (Romania) of the Sub- Commission on the Promotion of Human Rights introduced the charter bodies and their competencies. She gave a brief history of the Sub-Commission and its changing role, and emphasised that one of its important tasks was to produce studies and working papers on various human rights subjects. She examined two different reports that were carried out on self-determination in the 1970s, but noted that since these reports were written during the Cold War, neither of the rapporteurs made their position explicit.

Since the conference was on self-determination within the UN framework it also focussed on forms of self-government with particular reference to arrangements for autonomy. Mrs Frieda Souhuwat, South Moluccas representative to the UNPO, agreed that autonomy could provide a good capacity-building solution for nations that might no longer have the organisational structures and necessary skills for self-rule after years of control by centralised governments. She observed however, that this often was an insufficient measure to counter-act state abuses. Reverend Bhikkvu, UNPO representative of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), examined the pros and cons in the 1997 Peace Accord between the CHT and India, and noted that one of the difficulties of the process was the insufficiency of safeguards to ensure its implementation at the international level and under international law. Mr Kuupik Kleist, Representative of the Government of Greenland, reviewed the successful negotiations and implementation of the current Home Rule Arrangements. He recommended that the next seminar examine how stateless nations, as well as autonomous entities, can achieve a more recognized international status, without having to accord them full sovereignty.

Fatimeh Ziai, Executive Officer of the UN Secretary General, explained the role of the Secretary General in preventative diplomacy. She observed that "if we believe self-determination is about the rights and welfare of people and not necessarily territory with borders, it is essential to change the language of the debate". John Cockell, Research Associate at the London School of Economics, examined the role of the peace-keeping mission in Kosovo with regard to self-determination. He noted that the mandate of a UN Mission is of vital importance for conflict resolution, determining whether it is capacitated or not, to deal with central issues of sovereignty and self-determination. The issue of mandate emerged as a clear demarcation limiting the extent to which the various UN mechanisms are allowed to go in seeking to resolve questions of self-determination. Prof Joshua Cooper of the Hawaian Institute of Human Rights emphasised the role of people and civil society in making UN mechanisms more reponsive. "Even the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights would not be what it is if it was not for civil society and NGOs. Self-determination is a problem that goes all the way back to the Papal Bulls. The article of self-determination is a small article which is trying to combat all this history."

Other prominent speakers at the conference included, among others, Siegfried Wiessner, St Thomas University (USA), Christian P. Scherrer, Senior Research Fellow and Head of ECOR, and Anacleto Bokessa from Bioko, Equatorial Guinea.