Somalia, Palestine, and France: Ghost Countries for Ghost Countries
Ex-state Somalia gets to vote for non-state Palestine at UNESCO. So does declining state France.
November 12, 2011 - 12:00 am
On October 31, Somalia supported Palestine’s accession to full member of UNESCO. In other words, a state that vanished from the map twenty years ago and survives only as a diplomatic fiction was allowed to cast a vote for a non-state.
I can’t think of a better case to present against UNESCO, the UN, and the other world organizations. They are not just divorced from reality: they nurture it.
The Republic of Somalia existed for about thirty years, from 1960 to 1990. It was set up by UN experts as a merger of two former colonial territories: the Italian colony of Somalia, turned into a UN trusteeship in 1945 though still under Italian administration; and the British protectorate of Somaliland.
Indeed, Italian Somalia and British Somaliland looked like good matches. They shared a common language, Soomali, and a common religion, Islam.
What experts failed to understand, however, was that Soomali is a galaxy of related dialects rather than a functional vernacular language. They also failed to recognize that Somali Islam broke up — as Islam does everywhere — into many sects and subsects, Sunni, Shia, and Sufi, and that tribes or clans play more significant role in that part of the world than nation-building or anything related to Western-style nations-states.
Moreover, they underestimated the impact of colonization, especially among the elites: inasmuch as they were educated, former Italian subjects were Italianized, and former British protégés were Anglicized. Worlds apart.
For nine years, there was a serious attempt to make the Republic of Somalia work. Then in 1969, the Italian-educated second regularly elected president of the country, Abdirashid Ali Shermarke, was shot by one of his bodyguards.
Within days, a military junta headed by General Mohamed Syad Barre took over and established a regime patterned after Soviet Russia and Communist China. Traditional Islam, Somali nationalism, and “scientific Marxism” were blended into a state-enforced ideology, backed by a single-party administration.
In 1977, Barre attacked Ethiopia — a neighboring country ridden by hunger, revolution, and civil war since 1973 — in a bid to liberate Ogaden, an ethnically Somali province, and incorporate it into a Greater Somalia. The attempt misfired: the USSR, which had hitherto supported Barre’s regime, sided with Ethiopia’s rising Red dictator General Mengistu Haile Mariam. Cuban Soviet proxies crushed the Somalian invaders and drove them back home. In order to survive, Barre mended fences with the United States, without relinquishing his Muslim National Socialism. Military campaigns against several rebellious clans took near genocidal dimensions.
In 1991, Barre was finally ousted. But Somalia collapsed as a state by the same token. Somaliland formally restored its independence and functioned again as a decently managed country: over the years it has won a measure of de facto international recognition, like, say, Taiwan, without being admitted to the UN or other similar organizations.
Puntland, the northern part of the former Italian Somalia, has gradually achieved de facto independence as well, except for one reservation: it claims to be merely an autonomous province within a still-to-be-created Federal Republic of Somalia. Several other Somalian provinces have more or less opted for a similar status.
As for the southern half of the former Italian Somalia, it has disintegrated over the years into one of the most chaotic places in the world.
Mogadishu, the capital city, and most of the coastline are ruled by warrior clans loosely affiliated to radical Islamist networks, including al-Qaeda. Piracy is endemic in what is supposed to be Somalian national waters or adjacent international waters. Inland Somalia has reverted to the Stone Age, except for some Sharia. Demography is exuberant: from 2.2 million in 1960 to 10 million now, and 45% of all Somalians are currently under 14. Hunger is rampant.
The U.S. and other countries attempted once — the Restore Hope operation in 1992-1993 — to bring back civilization (law, order, personal safety) to Somalia. It failed, naturally. Neither the U.S. nor its partners were willing to countenance the truth: civilization starts with a display of naked, brutish, power. First you break heads. Then, God willing, you may consider counting them. There is no other way. Since the U.S. and other countries were unwilling to break heads in Somalia, some locals took over the job.
And yet, there is something called the Government of Somalia which still enjoys full international recognition, maintains embassies and diplomatic representations (thanks to Western funding), and takes part in votes at the UN and at UNESCO. And Somalia voted for Palestine at UNESCO. And will vote again for it at the UN and anywhere else.
If Somalia is a failed state, or a collapsed state, or a former state, Palestine is as of today a non-state.
Under international law, states need three things in order to be recognized as such by other states: a population, a territory, and a government.
What really counts as an emerging Palestinian state’s population is unclear: is it just the residents of the West Bank and Gaza, or does it also include the Arab citizens or residents of Israel, as well as the Arab Palestinian refugees of 1948 wherever they may be and their ever-expanding patrilinear descent, even if they are citizens of other Arab or non-Arab countries?
If one is to retain the first, most restrictive definition — residents of the West and Gaza — the Palestinian state population would amount to about 4 million people. If one is to include all putative Palestinians all over the world, it would amount to about 11 million people, and this is actually the figure put forward by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), a branch of the Palestinian Authority (PA). In order to get such a number, the PCBS brazenly goes so far as to claim 500,000 citizens of Chile, a South American country, as Palestinians. Such elastic demographics do not fit with statehood recognition prerequisites.
What counts as Palestinian state territory is equally unclear: is it the various places deemed to be under Palestinian Authority control according to the Oslo accords; or those parts of the former Mandatory Palestine held by non-Palestinian Arab states between 1948 and 1967, as many Western countries tend to say nowadays, along with PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas; or Mandatory Palestine as a whole (including what is now Israel), as it is displayed on Palestinian emblems and maps, and routinely referred to in PA literature? Again, such uncertainty does not meet recognization prerequisites.
But the main issue against recognition is government. There are at least two aspiring Palestinian governments today: the Fatah-dominated government in Ramallah, which controls the West Bank, and the Hamas-dominated government in Gaza. Which means that there is none. Or alternatively, that there are two geographically separate Palestinian states in the making — an interesting outcome.
Neither the Ramallah government nor the Gaza government is legitimate, even by the highly flawed criteria of PA law: the first one was appointed by Mahmoud Abbas, whose term as PA president has been over since January 9, 2009; the second one took over the Gaza Strip in a violent coup in 2007. Any credit the Ramallah government enjoys on international scenes derives in the first place from the formal and informal ties that Israel, for good or bad reasons, is willing to keep with it.
There is even a third Palestinian government to be considered: the Palestine Liberation Organization, which issued a Unilateral Declaration of Independence in Algiers in 1988. The PLO was subsequently granted diplomatic recognition as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people by most Communist and Third World countries and even a growing number of Western countries. Throughout the current debates about a Palestinian state’s accession to the UN and UNESCO, the fact that the PLO already sits at observer’s level at the UN and at most international organizations and that its president is Abbas himself has been routinely ignored.
The current PLO/PA duality, as well as a prospective PLO/Palestinian state duality, is part and parcel of the Palestinian strategies: it means that whatever the PA or a state of Palestine may agree is not to be binding on the Palestinian national movement as embodied by the PLO. This is reminiscent of the classic Communist distinction between the Soviet state, which may engage in treaties with the bourgeois states, and the Communist International, which may ignore them.
No defined population or territory, no undisputed national government: Palestine (whatever it means) cannot be deemed a state under present circumstances and accordingly cannot be admitted as a member-state by international organizations.
The U.S., thanks to Congressional legislation, stuck to such basics at the UNESCO October 31 vote. Only 16 other UNESCO members made a similar decision. Fifty-three abstained, however: they entertained no illusion about the admission of Palestine, but were not bold enough to state it explicitly. One hundred and seven countries supported admission. Including Somalia. And Libya, which is hardly in better shape than Somalia nowadays. And France, which may no longer be as strong as a state and a country as it used to be.
Pundits at and around Quai d’Orsay (the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs) claim that since France is poised to abstain in the UN vote on Palestine, something Arab and Islamic countries resent enormously, it had to appear more “positive” at the UNESCO vote. My feeling: France’s vote has less to do with Arab and Islamic countries than with the domestic Arab and Islamic community.
Remember: 2012 is an election year, and Sarkozy is not exactly popular. French citizens of Arab descent or of the Islamic persuasion (5% of the vote so far, according to various estimates) will have a say. For the time being, 16% of them only say they may cast their ballot for the incumbent. Moreover, unrest among the Arab and Islamic community at large — this includes foreign legal and illegal residents and may amount to 10% of the global population at least — can turn overnight into a major crisis. On November 2, the satiric paper Charlie Hebdo published Sharia Hebdo, a special issue on Islamic fanaticism.
Its offices were torched the same night, a warning of some sort.