17 March 2005

Self-determination for Croatian Serbs?

Do the half-million ethnic Serbs ejected from Croatia a decade ago have the right to establish something like a mini-state within the boundaries of Croatia, complete with their own parliament and government institutions? The principle of national self-determination could be taken to imply this. After all, the boundaries separating the republics of the former Yugoslavia represent nothing more significant than the shifting borders between the expanding Habsburg and contracting Ottoman empires in the 19th century. Why not revise the boundaries so that the members of various ethnic groups might live together and govern themselves relatively free from "foreign" rule?

The issue is not as simple as that. After all, there is a case to be made that most of the world's international boundaries are artificial and inevitably bisect existing communities of history, culture and sentiment. Witness the lengthy 49th parallel between Canada and the United States, the boundary between Greece and Turkey in eastern Thrace, the European colonial borders imposed on Africa, and the ridiculously straight lines running through the deserts of the middle east. Yet despite their evident artificiality, any general revision of such borders is likely to unleash a chaos destructive of the political stability which is basic to the doing of justice.

It is worth reminding ourselves that political communities, with their territorial limits, exist primarily to do public justice to all people within their boundaries, whatever their ethnicity, and not to fulfil the aspirations of a pre-existing national community.

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