Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

11th June 2000

Federalism - is it the answer?

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The United States, which is generally opposed to the concept of separatism, believes in a system of government that has been successfuly tried and tested in its own soil: federalism.

Addressing a forum in New York last October, US President Bill Clinton raised a huge political storm when he praised federalism and national unity while expressing strong opposition to separatism.

Clinton's remarks were deemed controversial because they were made in one of the world's few industrial nations facing the threat of dismemberment: Canada.

For nearly three decades now, one of the central political issues in Canadian politics is the linguistic divide between English speaking and French speaking Canadians that is fuelling separatism in the predominantly French Canadian province of Quebec.

The paradox is that virtually every year, the UN's Human Development Index places Canada right on top among countries closest to a modern utopia: a healthy nation with rising incomes and literacy rates, a vibrant economy and high living standards.

If Canada continues to rank Number One in the Human Development Index, how come there are Canadian separatists who want to break away from the virtual paradise and create a new nation state of their own.?

Unfortunately, the UN has never entertained any thoughts of answering that rhetorical question.

Pointing out that the US and Canada were two of the most fortunate nations because of the diversity within them, Clinton said that if every major racial, ethnic and religious group won independence, "we might have 800 countries in the world (compared with the 188 member states currently at the UN) and have a very difficult time having a functioning economy."

As an afterthought he added: "Maybe we would have 8,000 countries how low can you go?"

Despite the tremendous advances in modern technology, he said, "our major threat is the most primitive human failing the fear of the other."

At a press conference in Colombo last month, US Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering said the US does not envision or support the establishment of another independent state inside Sri Lanka "nor do we believe other members of the international community would support it."

"I don't believe there is any international support that I can find for a new separate state of Eelam here in this island," he said.

A former US Ambassador to the UN, Pickering also laid out the US position when he said that it is the "international community" that is the arbiter of who becomes states and who doesn't become states through a process of recognition and establishment of relations.

Since the US wields considerable political clout at the UN, primarily because of its veto power, Washington can be a deciding factor on who gets international recognition as a separate state and who doesn't.

No new state can, in fact, gain any international recognition if it is vetoed by any one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, namely the US, France, Britain, Russia and China.

Asked if the US would take any initiative in mediating the dispute in Sri Lanka, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Karl Inderfurth used a Hollywood metaphor to describe the US role. "We would play the role of best supporting actor," he said last week.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is the chief administrative officer of an Organisation with a diverse group of member states, is also a proponent of "unity in diversity."

Last October, addressing a meeting in Indonesia, where the provinces of Aceh and West Papua are threatening to breakaway from the mother country, Annan said that breaking large states into small ones is often "a wasteful and unimaginative way" of solving political difficulties.

"But those who oppose separatism," he cautioned, "have got to show that their solution is less wasteful and more imaginative. Minorities have got to be convinced that the state really belongs to them, as well as to the majority."

"I cannot think of a better motto for the world as a whole and particularly for our United Nations," Annan added.

He also pointed out that separatism is a much more complex issue than terrorism though it is often identified with terrorism, because separatists use terrorism to promote their cause.

"We cannot say that separatism is always wrong. After all, many member states of the UN today owe their existence to separatist movements in the past," he said. "But, please do not think that it means the UN is predisposed in favour of separatism, or that its purpose is to break up large states into smaller ones," he added.

The truth is, he asserted, that many separatist movements are wrong.

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