Redrawing borders is dangerous. But so is leaving them alone

Though few in number, stateless nations account for a degree of suffering and armed conflicts out of all proportion to their size

When Scotland voted by a 10 per cent margin with a huge turn-out to remain part of the United Kingdom, loud sighs of relief could be heard not just in Westminster, but across Europe.

The relief was more muted, but palpable nonetheless, when the regional government of Catalonia decided this week not to proceed with a referendum on independence after Spain’s constitutional court agreed to hear the central government’s case. Both Scotland and Catalonia are now likely to be rewarded with more autonomy, and the present composition of the European Union, like the two countries concerned, remains intact.

These two decisions do not mean, however, that we can all settle back into our national comfort zones and disregard the risks presented by potentially mobile borders and self-defined nations without states. On the contrary. The Scottish vote and the Catalonia decision testify more to the relative stability of most of Europe at present than to any lessening of the appeal of statehood to those who do not enjoy its privileges.

David Cameron may believe, as he has said, that the future of Scotland has been settled for a generation, and the Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond, may have acknowledged as much by his resignation, but the Scottish and Catalonian questions could well re-emerge before the decade is out.

Even if they do not, however, you have only to look a little further afield, and it should be clear that the same two separate but related issues – ill-defined borders and nations without states – constitute possibly the most destabilising elements in the world today.

The list of the most obvious examples looks short. There are the Kurds and the Palestinians in the Middle East; there are the Kashmiris and the Tamils in South Asia; and there are the Uighurs and the Tibetans in western China. But the brevity of the list belies the extent of the trouble such stateless nations can cause. They account for a degree of suffering, for destructive acts and for armed conflicts out of all proportion to their size.


Profound passions are bound up in such national questions. Any academic meeting held in the UK to discuss Kashmir is almost guaranteed to descend into the closest thing to a physical brawl that any scholarly get-together will ever witness. At a conference to discuss the future of Syria at the London think-tank Chatham House earlier this week, a Kurdish member of the audience worked himself up into a such a state that he dissolved into tears when posing a question about the fate of the Kurds now under siege by Islamic State forces in northern Syria.

Back in 2009, Londoners will remember the chaos created by Tamil protesters calling for the UK government to intervene to demand justice for their compatriots as the Sri Lankan civil war was reaching its bloody end. The police were under orders not to try to remove them by force for fear of mass suicides.

And the Palestinians, it seems, are always with us. The plight of Palestinian refugees and their descendants – still refugees two and three generations on – prompts desperate protests and periodic mini-wars with Israel, the most recent only this year with Hamas-led Gaza. Those old enough will remember the plane and ship hijackings of the 1970s. But still the promised two-state solution remains elusive. The House of Commons voted last week by 274 to 12 in favour of recognising Palestine as a state alongside Israel, but it was a symbolic vote – indicative, perhaps, of a shift in British political attitudes towards Israel, but no more than this. And it brings the Palestinians no closer to internationally recognised full statehood.

Move eastwards, and this time last year Beijing suffered what the Chinese authorities described as its first terrorist incident of recent history, when three people, believed to be Uighur activists, drove their car on to Tiananmen Square and crashed it. They killed themselves and two passers-by, and injured almost 40 others.

Given the enormous disruption such stateless peoples tend to cause, especially if they have charismatic leaders and the ability to court public sympathy beyond their immediate geographic area, you might have thought that more consideration would be given internationally to addressing their complaints – or aspirations. But there can scarcely be any other area of international life where hearts are harder.

The merest hint of redrawing national borders – which is what statehood for the stateless inevitably entails – is met, at best, by a dismissive shrug, and more often by all-out diplomatic resistance. This is an area of international life where there seems to be least room for manoeuvre; even the tiniest fraction of flexibility is categorically ruled out.

It is not hard to understand why. If those who have no state to their name are to obtain one, someone else will invariably have to lose. The establishment of the state of Israel is a classic case in point. Violent acts and the world’s guilty conscience both played a role in Israel’s creation in 1948, but the dispossession and the resentment endure to this day, leaving Israel sitting uneasily, still, in its neighbourhood.  

For the best part of half a century there was another reason, too, why any talk of altering borders was taboo. The carve-up agreed, however controversially, at Yalta in 1945 provided the framework for peace after two world wars. When east-west relations deteriorated, as they soon did, and Churchill’s iron curtain descended, acceptance of those borders ensured that the Cold War remained cold. Nasty little proxy wars broke out in central America and parts of Africa, but in Europe the peace held, and mutual respect for national borders was part of the reason.

But that settlement came unstuck when communism collapsed, the iron curtain fell and the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia disintegrated. Early international recognition for the three Baltic States was perhaps the simplest of the decisions taken as 1991 drew to a close. It was widely accepted that their inclusion in the Soviet Union had been an injustice.

Others decisions were far harder. The heart-searching that accompanied the unravelling of the Yalta settlement is now largely forgotten. German reunification may be taken for granted today, but enthusiasm was distinctly lacking at the time, not just in Moscow but in London. Often forgotten, too, is the reluctance of the then US administration, under George Bush Snr, to accept the demise of the Soviet Union, and – perverse though it might seem today – Ukraine’s desire for independence in particular.

Different conclusions about the sanctity of national borders can be drawn from the aftermath of communism’s collapse in Europe. In one camp are those who point to the relatively peaceful division of the Soviet Union and argue that changing borders and the creation of new states, or the restoration of old ones, can be beneficial – both to the citizens of the new states themselves and to the neighbourhood in general. Scotland’s Yes campaign noted that not one state, having won independence, has chosen to give it up.

In another camp would be those who point to the messy break-up of Yugoslavia and argue that changing borders only resurrects old enmities and opens old wounds. The mayhem at the Serbia-Albania football match this week, when a drone carrying a Nazi-era Albanian flag was flown over the pitch, prompting fist fights, shows how close to the surface history lies. 

For those in the first camp, it would also be fair to note that the Soviet collapse was not quite as peaceful as it might have appeared. Old border disputes around the fringes were reignited and remain unresolved to this day as “frozen” conflicts. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea earlier this year and the fighting still simmering in eastern Ukraine can be seen as unfinished business from 1991-2.

All that said, I tend to think that there is too much resistance to the principle of altering borders and recognising new states. Of course, such changes bring risks. Statehood comes with costs and responsibilities. Perhaps the bigger risk, though, stems from the injured self-respect of the state which perceives it has suffered a loss.

It is almost inconceivable, for instance, that Turkey would give up a part of its south-east to give the Kurds their own state, despite the decades of unrest their lack of autonomy has caused. Or that Syria, Iran or Iraq would formally cede territory to a Kurdish state, unless the centres of those states cannot hold. There are those, too, who say that the Kurds living in separate states are now too distinct to come together in a cohesive state. Perhaps.

But the sense of loss, and injured self-respect, on the part of the country that gives up territory to a new state could be lessened if it were more widely accepted that borders cannot be set in stone – and if there were institutional procedures designed to facilitate it peacefully. Demographic change happens, and is one reason why Kosovo – now majority ethnic Albanian – fought for independence from Serbia. The messy aftermath of what we hopefully called the Arab Spring offers a reminder that, like empires, nations rise and nations fall.  

Across Syria and Iraq national borders seem to be dissolving before our very eyes. But consider for a moment: these were borders that were themselves, to a degree, artificial: colonial borders, imposed from outside. Islamic State is no state, but its forces are scything through vast swathes of territory, leaving destruction, but perhaps also the beginnings of new demarcation lines, even new states, in their wake.

For a new generation of outsiders to try to preserve the status quo in the name of civilisation is no answer and could, in the long run, rebound. We should watch and we should wait, in the knowledge that states and their borders are neither sacrosanct nor eternal, even though we were brought up to believe that they were.

Mary Dejevsky will be a panellist discussing ‘Whose borders are they anyway? The nation state unravelling’ at the Battle of Ideas being held this weekend at the Barbican in London