That Somaliland has built a functioning state while the former Somali state remains nonexistent 20 years after its collapse gives Somaliland a legitimate claim to sovereignty. Its government has domestic authority and control, and it provides public services.
Somaliland meets the Montevideo Convention’s criteria for statehood: a permanent population, a defined territory, government, and the capacity to enter into relations with the other states.
However, Somaliland’s strongest claim to self-rule is that its people were brutalized by the Somali state between 1988 and 1990.
Even before the Somali civil war began in 1988, Mohamed Siad Barre’s regime repressed specific segments of Somalia’s population. Those of the Isaaq clan-family, who comprise roughly 70 percent of Somaliland’s population, were among the most harshly treated.
Repression turned into brutality in May 1988. In retaliation for an attack on Hargeisa and Burao by the rebel Somali National Movement, Barre bombed these major cities nearly to dust, killing thousands of civilians. For the following 18 months, the Somali state waged total war against the Isaaq and other northern clans deemed to be enemies of the regime.
Suffering by the Isaaq and other northern clans has been etched into Somaliland’s national psyche. To this day, a MiG fighter is enshrined in the center of Hargeisa, a monument reminding Somalilanders of the days when its own government rained down fire from above.
It is from this period of state-sponsored terror that Somaliland draws its most convincing claim to the right to self-determination. When a government systematically slaughters its own people, it loses every right to govern them.
If Siad Barre’s regime had been quickly replaced by one that respected the rights of all Somalis, perhaps also undertaking truth-and-reconciliation efforts, Somaliland probably would have remained part of Somalia. However, 20 years of chaos in the south have ensued, and there is no end in sight.
Many also note that Somaliland enjoyed five days of statehood in 1960. The British Protectorate of Somaliland gained independence on June 26 and was recognized as a sovereign state by 35 countries before it merged with Italian Somalia on July 1, 1960. This is significant because the African Union generally seeks to maintain the post-colonial boundaries inherited by African states. Although the African Union recently acquiesced to South Sudan’s independence, it is not eager to embrace more state fragmentation.
However, many argue that Somaliland merely dissolved a voluntary union between two separate states and therefore does not constitute redrawing post-colonial borders.
This argument has merit, but Somaliland’s victimization, combined with the fact that it has built a functioning state, is sufficient to justify recognizing Somaliland as a sovereign state.
The principle that the territorial integrity of existing states should be maintained is a potent article of faith in the international system. It is not unshakable, but recognition is usually a contentious affair. Many leaders fear disintegration and chaos if every separatist group believes it can easily form its own state.
But think of the success Slovenia and Croatia have enjoyed since breaking away from the war-torn former Yugoslavia. Neighbors can obviously still engage in conflict, but permitting self-determination can reduce tensions because hostile groups will no longer have to fight over political control of a shared state.
Drawing the lines of new states is always difficult because different groups within the same territory often have different allegiances. Indeed, Somaliland’s eastern regions of Sool and Sanaag have mixed loyalties. Members of the Darood clan-family form a local majority in these regions, and some would prefer to join neighboring Puntland, an autonomous region of Somalia that is dominated by Darood.
Although Somaliland’s Darood were included in the peacemaking process and most supported the declaration of independence, many do not feel that Somaliland’s government protects their interests. Sporadic fighting has broken out between local militias and Somaliland’s army as well as between Puntland and Somaliland. The conflict has remained low-intensity, but Somaliland’s government needs to negotiate with Puntland and local Darood to reach an acceptable resolution.
The international community should not immediately recognize all entities that declare themselves independent states. Doing so would create volatility. Each case should be considered based on a combination of the claim’s merits, how long the claim has endured, and of the claimants’ capacity to self-govern. Negotiated splits are usually the best option, but when oppressed groups take it upon themselves to win independence through force of arms and then build functioning states, who are we to say that they do not exist?
By Timothy A. Ridout (Washington)
Timothy A. Ridout ( firstname.lastname@example.org), a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, is managing editor of the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.