Sweden has recognised Palestine, the Scotsmen recently went to the polls, the Catalonians calls for secession from Spain, and an independent Kurdistan is becoming more of a reality. Recognition of autonomous areas and de facto independent states is often presented as morally right and something we should strive for. Self-determination of the people is one of the founding principles of the UN treaty. But similarly is states sovereignty, expressed through the integrity and reverence of territory. These inviolable principles are reciprocally contradictive. But maybe the flexibility this brings about is just exactly what we need?

By Kristian Skovsted 

Sweden’s foreign minister Margot Wallström reasoned that the recognition of Palestine would be “a support for the moderate forces” and thereby help along the peace negotiations. From a conflict resolution perspective, this is quite interesting as Sweden here directly use the recognition of a de facto independent state as a tool for conflict resolution. But is recognition always preferable? Let us take a look at a very current, and in relation to Palestine a very underexposed case – Somaliland.

A conference on Somalia was held on the 19 and 20 November at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Copenhagen. It was here agreed that for the coming years there will continue to be invested massively in establishing a stable, working and economically growing federal state governed from Mogadishu. And a lot of good can be said about the international involvement and commitment. But it is pondering how it is once again constituted that it is the federal structure, which is the way for peace and stability for the Somali people. It certainly is in direct contradiction with the wishes in the North Western province, Somaliland. Who since its self-proclaimed independence in 1991, has functioned as a de facto independent state. The population here wishes for secession from Mogadishu. This was also shown in the 2001 referendum for Somaliland, were close to 100% voted for independence. And it is not very difficult to understand. The memories of the civil war are not only vivid in people’s minds, but also shown in the streetscape were bombed building still remains. Though two decades have passed. The people wish for independence. But are there other valid arguments for this?

Trade, tourism and reconciliation
More specifically recognition will make it easier for Somaliland to participate in diplomatic relations with surrounding states, as many of these states prefer not to deal with Mogadishu. It will also make it possible for taking international loans and bring with it an increase in trade. Further there will be a growth in tourism given that a recognised Somaliland will not be affected by the insecurity and other countries travel guides for the conflict-torn parts of Somalia. But as an independent state it will be acknowledged that the area has its own internal security dynamics where conflicts between clans are handled far better than in the rest of Somalia. It is also important not to underestimate the symbolic meaning recognition would have. It will create a new national pride and equally will it represent a new chapter in Somaliland’s history – a chapter where the traumas of the civil war can be put to rest and a road ahead shown.

Then why is the West not recognising Somaliland? Are Margot Wallström’s words, that it will be “a support for the moderate forces” also not applicable for Somaliland? Somaliland meets the four criteria set out in the Montevideo Convention from 1934 to be internationally recognised as an independent state. The treaties article I state that according to international law a state must have a stable population, a delineated territory, a working government and capability to partake in diplomatic relations with other states. Following these criteria’s it can fare more be argued for recognition of Somaliland as an independent state compared to many other recognised states. Also, Somaliland has far more administrative and security control over its territory compared to recognised states such as Syria, DR Congo, Pakistan, Libya etc. And also even Somalia. Given that there are various reasons for these other states lack of control.

Regional and continental potential for chaos
The absent recognition from the West is also due to the matter that it is considered from the Western countries that African Union (AU) must take the first step in any possible recognition process. Recognition of Somaliland is also an acknowledgement that the project for creating a federal state, which the West wholeheartedly supports, has failed. Whether this plays a role in the West’s passive stand or there truly is an endorsement for the mantra “African solutions for African problems” and a support for a strong AU is hard to tell. However, in both cases it seems that AU must take the initiative. Then why is AU not doing so?

The main reason for this must lie in the fear for an eruption of violence and conflicts that will spread out over sub-Sahara Africa if Somaliland is recognised. AU rightfully fear that such a move will make other separatist movements and rebel groups think that self-proclaimed independence and recognition is possible through armed rebellions. Recognition of Somaliland can also have the effect of encouraging for a continued armed combats in various conflict zones. And perhaps even in specific instances be a catalyst for a rise and support for such groups. Further, it is possible that a full secession from Somali will make the semi-autonomous and pro-federal regions, Puntland and Jubbaland, to also demand independence. This will according to supporters of a federal state only create more violence.

The current situation in South Sudan is definitely not changing AU withstanding to use recognition as a tool for conflict resolution. AU uses the majority of its budget on security related operations despite the purpose is to have a focus on economic and social progress. This should be considered when trying to understand why AU is cautious with this advancement. Considering the relatively peaceful circumstances in Somaliland, and both the economic and social progress happening, AU is maintaining a status quo. Saving its scarce resources for conflicts higher on the agenda of the Peace and Security Council – such as al-Shabaab in Southern and Central Somalia.

If a recognition of Somaliland can be a possible catalyst for an escalation of conflicts other places on the continent AU’s caution is defendable. This way Somaliland is an example that people’s right for self-determination should be considered in a greater context, and not merely for the AU currently not recognising Somaliland can paradoxically be said to be out of consideration the African people in general – but at the cost of Somaliland.

Kristian Skovsted is a Master student in Global Studies at Roskilde University

Translated by Rumet Cilgin