Separatists vs. Pirates!

by Chris Borgen

I know this sounds like the title of a movie franchise, but Brad Roth of Wayne State has alerted me to an op-ed in today’s New York Times that deals with both Somali piracy and unrecognized separatist regions. Jay Bahadur writes:

There might be another way to make greater strides against pirates. However, it would involve allying ourselves with a place that doesn’t exist: the autonomous region of Puntland, Somalia…

Contrary to the oft-recycled one-liners found in most news reports, Somalia is not a country ruled by anarchy. Indeed, it is a mischaracterization to even speak of Somalia as a uniform entity. It is an amalgamation of quasi-independent regions like Puntland, which was founded in 1998 as a tribal sanctuary for the hundreds of thousands of Darod-clan people fleeing massacres in the south. Puntland comprises one-quarter to one-third of Somalia’s total land mass (depending on whom you talk to) and almost half of its coastline…

In any serious attempt to combat piracy, Puntland must play an integral role. Yet it is not recognized as a legitimate actor in the region and has been financially abandoned by the international community, which continues to ignore the reality on the ground in favor of the flimsy transitional federal government, a 550-member parliamentary hodgepodge ruling over a few checkpoints in Mogadishu, hundreds of miles from any real pirate activity…

By contrast, argues Bahadur, the separatist region of Puntland is making efforts at providing coastal security.

Despite Puntland’s limited capacity, Mr. Farole [Puntland’s leader] is committed to taking the fight to the pirates. Indeed, the government of Puntland has been advocating a strict policy of nonnegotiation with pirates since the beginning of the crisis. On those occasions that Puntland’s tiny (and now defunct) coast guard has been given the authority by shipowners to liberate hijacked vessels, the pirates have tended to melt away, content to keep their lives rather than their prize.

Successful land operations in Puntland’s coastal towns have accompanied these marine assaults…

Bahadur argues that financial aid the to Somali federal government is money wasted; a smaller amount of aid to cash-strapped Puntland could significantly increase its ability to undertake such anti-piracy operations.

The U.S. has been exploring increasing ties with Somaliland, another separatist region with aspirations of statehood with which Puntland has had occasional military clashes. These cases show an interesting nexus in regional security initiatives and the politics of recognition. The Somaliland case has had more attention, as Peter Pham wrote, after a January 2008 visit, then-Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer

was careful to emphasize that the recent flurry of activity did not imply diplomatic recognition was imminent, noting that while “we have said on many occasions that the U.S. will continue to work with Somaliland, in particular, in the strong democratic values which Somaliland has succeeded in implementing,” the issue of recognition should be left to the African Union (AU), while America would “work with the AU and will respect whatever decision it makes on Somaliland’s status.”

Pham also noted that the AU’s report regarding Somailand stressed the uniqueness of the case. The AU report stated:

The fact that the union between Somaliland and Somalia was never ratified and also malfunctioned when it went into action from 1960 to 1990, makes Somaliland’s search for recognition historically unique and self-justified in African political history. Objectively viewed, the case should not be linked to the notion of ‘opening a Pandora’s Box’. As such, the AU should find a special method of dealing with this outstanding case…

So now Kosovo, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Somaliland are all “unique” cases…

Anyway, it will be interesting to observe how security policy and recognition issues affect each other.

6 Responses

  1. In cases like Puntland and Somaliland, where it appears there is some conflict between the two states, how would the United States tailor its aid in such a way as to not be seen as choosing sides or enabling further conflict? We certainly wouldn’t want to be supporting two sides of a possible civil war, but picking one of the two to focus on seems equally problematic. Kosovo may be distinguishable as a genocidal victim, i that it’s acceptable to step in against a country like Serbia to defend a political subdivision, but in the Somalia example there’s a different dynamic, isn’t there?

  2. By my reading of traditional doctrine, Somaliland and Puntland present relatively strong cases for recognition.  Whereas Kosovo must rely either on a doubtful interpretation of self-determination doctrine or on some “sui generis” quality, Somaliland and Puntland appear to have long established effective control through internal processes.  Recognition of seceding entities is, in principle, not precluded where a central government’s reunification efforts are manifestly futile for reasons other than foreign interference.  It is true that even in such instances, recognition tends not to occur in practice, but the reasons appear to be more political than doctrinal.  Moreover, whereas the Badinter judgment of Yugoslavia’s non-consensual dissolution relied on questionable assertions of both law and fact, Somalia has lacked an effective central authority for two decades, and represents a failure of more than any one constitutional arrangement.  The non-fragmentation norm remains strongly presumptive, but it is not absolute.

  3. I largely agree with Brad regarding Somalia. Although I am not well versed in Somali history (and the issue of recognition is very fact-based), my initial understanding is that Somalia is more akin to a state in the midst of dissolution and that Somaliland and Puntland may have a good argument as being successors (rather than simply secessionists).  As Brad mentioned, this would follow (albeit with perhaps a stronger set of facts) the Badinter Commission’s argument regarding Yugoslavia’s successor states.

    As I’ve written here and elsewhere, I do think there are some decent arguments to be made in favor of Kosovo’s recognition, especially keeping in mind that secession, in and of itself, is neither legal nor illegal under international law.

    In any case, I will leave that for another time as I know I have promised an as-yet unwritten set of posts on the  ICJ proceedings on Kosovo and those posts will come… once I finish grading my exams…

  4. Somaliland is not a new country that has a statehood “aspirations”!!! I doubt how much you know about history my freind.! Somaliland was a real independent country in 1960,  then it unified with Somalia!
    Somaliland is not like puntland or kosofo or Abkhazia!
    somaliland is like those countries that were united and then canceled their union like: Norway and Sweden, Mali and Senegal, Syria and Egypt and so on.

  5. Response…

  6. I seriously question the presumptive norm Brad Roth enunciates (though I know this is a nearly universal presumption, at least among policy makers in established sovereign states) towards nonfragmentation.  It is more than irksome that old tribal groups and even those with stronger claims to nationhood, e.g. Kurds in Iraq, Kashmiris, Armenians, etc., are not allowed by the global superpowers to seek independence and statehood, because there is a presumption that it is desireable to maintain “state” boundaries as they are, even when these boundaries were created by outside superpowers for their own colonial purposes.  I don’t know anything about Somali history, but expect that the national boundaries that now exist in Eastern Africa are likewise the creature of European colonialists whose strategic purposes are long dead and buried with their architects.

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