Sudan referendum underscores Western acceptance of partition in extreme cases     Print Email

The Sudan’s likely break-up and the emergence of a new nation in the southern part of the country is the latest example of partition enjoying the backing of both the EU and the U.S., a theme discussed in European Affairs last month.

Governments on both sides of the Atlantic are increasingly inclined to prefer a peaceful partition as an alternative to a protracted bloody civil war. Such was the case in Sudan: its 1983-2005 civil war resulted in a political deal and a plan for a referendum on independence for the south. And as that vote started this week, six years later, U.S. media reported that President Barack Obama is offering inducements to Khartoum if it refrains from interfering with the voting and the likely outcome -- secession of oil-rich southern Sudan. If the process proceeds peacefully (presumably in July 2011), Obama has promised to remove Sudan from its list of nations which sponsor terrorism, fill the long-vacant slot of U.S. Ambassador to Khartoum and lift economic and trade sanctions.

Until now, the West, together with post-colonial regimes in Africa and elsewhere, has always been wary of any such border changes, fearing a domino effect. The end of the cold war has eased some apprehensions in this regard and led to increasingly flexible attitudes. Explaining this apparent evolution in Western capitals away from a longstanding taboo on changing post-colonial borders, a European diplomat was quoted in the European Affairs article saying, “There are places where it makes more sense to partition live populations than to maintain national unity around a mounting toll of corpses.”

Civil wars and other internal conflicts stemming from ethnic and irredentist disputes have become more and more prevalent since the fall of the Soviet empire. As Yugoslavia collapsed in ethnic violence, independent states emerged and, ultimately, a NATO-led force intervened to create conditions for the independence of Kosovo from Serbia. Similarly, there are calls for a revision of old borders, often drawn under duress in colonial times or as a result of conquests in Europe, that reflect little congruence with ethnic or other forms of homogeneity and often left large minority groups to oppression.. In Asia, East Timor got international help in splitting away from Indonesia in 2002. In such cases, partition and independence for new small states seems to offer improved prospects for stability. At the same time, the U.S. and the EU remain opposed to border changes wrought by force – for example, any recognition for Russian-protected separatist regions of Georgia.

And there are other places where recognizing independence movements could create havens of stability in turbulent regions. For example, Somaliland in the Horn of Africa has attracted some interest in its quest for independence from anarchic Somalia because it has a record of stable autonomy that could make it a new coastal country committed to fighting Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden.


Kurt Moss is an Editorial Assistant at European Affairs