Jan 29, 2021

UNPO Report: Forgotten citizens in contested territories in Europe

The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) has released a consultation paper on the forgotten people of Europe's frozen conflicts. The paper, which is designed to kick-start a conversation with the international community on how to best support the people caught up in illegal occupations or living in states with limited recogniton, charts the impact of these situations on the ability of regular people to travel and take up educational or cultural exchange opportunities. It highlights that generations of young people are being left behind or pushed towards illberal countries by a failure of liberal democratic states to take a people-centered approach to policy in these areas. 

The UNPO has found during its 30 years of experience that the predominant state-centered approach to conflict resolution has consistently failed to resolve challenges faced by persons residing in partially recognized or unrecognized territories. Geopolitical considerations result in the people trapped in these spaces being sidelined from negotiations and programmes of assistance and support fail to properly address their needs and wants.

In this paper, we examine the extent to which the European Union (EU) has facilitated the ability of people in partially or unrecognized territories from accessing travel, educational and cultural opportunities. It does so with the understanding that such opportunities are often what people in these spaces – many of whom are represented within the UNPO – are seeking from the EU and that this provides the EU significant soft power when it comes to being able to facilitate conflict resolution and encourage citizens in these spaces towards the values of liberal democracy that the EU espouses.

Our initial research finds that the EU has, over the past few years, limited its attempts to actively engage with persons in these territories preferring instead a more state-centered approach, enhancing relationships with internationally accepted nations claiming sovereignty over disputed territories and away from solving structural challenges, which gives rise to and allows the endurance of so-called frozen conflicts.

This paper argues that, instead, a people-centered approach should be adopted, focusing on the reality that citizens living at the fringes of the European Union are paying a high price and treated as second-class citizens. Thus, it argues that the EU should take the lead in promoting realistic, neutral people-centered policies in order to guarantee that citizens living in the limbo such states represent are treated equally and are not excluded from accessing educational and travel opportunities. Active engagement provides solutions while preventing isolation and the development of patronage relationships with illiberal governments.

There are good examples from past EU programmes in these spaces that provide useful guidance to the EU in this regard. As the EU’s own experience shows, viable solutions to seemingly intractable problems can be found when concrete and identifiable proposals are actively encouraged, including in the areas of freedom of movement and education.

Proper and clear-sighted engagement benefits all sides as it helps to integrate excluded citizens into the world, builds bridges and fills the legal voids that these areas represent in international security and crime. Solutions for affected individuals do not need to be predicated on whether these entities should be recognized. They can deal with the realities faced within these regions and recognize the practical implications of these ongoing challenges, something that the EU has proven adept at in the past.

Political impasses should not harm individuals caught in European frozen conflicts. Resolution by all parties, in fact, will likely come through meaningful engagement, not politically induced indifference.

Photo: Jakob Weizman