When ISIS announced the founding of the Islamic State, its propaganda machine made a big deal of the fact that it was scuppering the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 that was to shape the political map of the post-Ottoman Middle East. This agreement was negotiated between the British and the French, with Russian complicity, with a view to establishing each Western power’s sphere of influence and ensuring that others kept their noses out.
It was not, of course, the first time that the imperial powers had drawn lines on maps of regions far away from home.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a flurry of activity in the colonised world as the major powers carved up large parts of the globe among themselves – the Treaty of Berlin 1885 effectively divided up Africa into an assortment of imperial possessions. In so doing, the negotiators paid scant heed to details such as the extent of traditional ethnic/tribal lands, many a boundary-line slicing through such areas. This adversely affected the status of many an ethnic/tribal group as it found itself turned into minorities in different colonies and, later, different countries. It is a well-publicised fact that these boundary-drawing exercises eventually led to a lot of trouble in various parts of the developing world in the post-colonial period, and continue to be sources of tension and, sometimes, violence between neighbours.
The first newly-independent nations to face the problem of post-colonial boundary demarcation were, however, not Asian or African countries that gained independence after WW2 but Latin American nations that won their independence from Spain from 1820 on. The principle that arose during this period was uti possidetis – the retention of borders established by colonial powers. The alternative being interminable squabbling over disputed areas, it seemed the sensible thing to do. And so it was.
Uti possidetis was applied in post-colonial Africa and is actually written into the Constitutive Act of the African Union. It was declared customary law by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1986. It was applied outside the ex-colonial context in the division of the former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. Uti possidetis trumps both effective occupation of land as a claim to territory and the right of a people’s self-determination. Uti possidetis rules, man! J
Given the demonstrable fact that those colonial-era boundaries, haphazardly drawn as many were, have been at the root of much hassle in the world, it is perhaps perplexing that they should nonetheless be regarded as just about sacrosanct in international law. But what would be a realistic alternative? The use of traditional ethnic/tribal stomping grounds would surely be a retrograde step – the modern nation-state is not an ethnic or tribal entity. Besides, if we were to start changing national boundaries – in effect creating new national entities – along such lines, where would it end? How many thousands of ‘nations’ would we end up with?
The strength of the colonial-era borders, imperfect as many of them were, was that everyone usually knew where they were and consequently which country had jurisdiction over given areas. That spells certainty and stability, while dismantling those boundaries and trying to redraw them from scratch based on goodness knows what criteria – no doubt the occurrence of valuable natural resources would play a major role in determining where ‘traditional’ boundary claims would lie, ho hum – spells turbulence and on-going strife. It’s a choice between the devil you know and the devil you don’t. It is accordingly not in the least surprising that the big guns in international law such as the ICJ have thrown their weight behind uti possidetis.
The line ISIS has taken with regard to the Sykes-Picot agreement will, even today, strike a chord in some quarters. Messrs Sykes and Picot did the dirty on the Arabs (and the Kurds) and kept the deal a secret as they were counting on continuing regional support against the Turks – it was the Bolsheviks who blew the whistle on the arrangement, but by then the Ottoman Empire was in tatters and it didn’t matter.
So what will be in place of Sykes-Picot? ISIS intends to do some serious map-redrawing of its own:
It is easy to blame the colonial era for a lot of the world’s troubles, but it is not always so easy to come up with viable alternatives to the heritage it has left us. I doubt whether this one quite fits the bill. In practice, all a departure from long-established borders offers is the prospect of perpetual war over territory – exactly what the Latin Americans almost 200 years ago foresaw and made them opt instead for the principle of uti possidetis. The colonial era, bête noir as it is in intellectual circles today, largely shaped the world we live in and will continue to do so well into the future.
Dr Barend Vlaardingerbroek is associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut. He also has academic qualifications in science, arts/humanities and law. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.