LETTERS: Chechnya, Russia and the right to self-determination

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The Independent Online
From Mr Denzil Dunnett Sir: Your leading article today on Chechnya ("Think again, Mr Yeltsin'', 23 December) hits several nails on the head. But there are also some other issues of principle involved which should not be allowed to go by default.

"All peoples have the right of self-determination" is the opening statement of both the United Nations human rights covenants. Some countries, notably India, have made statements to the effect that, in their view, the right of self-determination applies only to peoples under foreign domination and not to a section of a people or a nation. However, this view has not prevailed and it is generally accepted in international law that the right of self-determination is universal.

The Chechens have a good claim to be recognised as a people. They are distinguished from the Russians by religion, language and history, and occupy a definite territory.

All this, however, does not necessarily justify a Chechen claim to full sovereign independence. One may well have sympathy, for example, with Russian concerns that the Chechens bestride lines of communication that are vital to Russia, and no one would wish to aggravate Russian difficulties.

In this situation, the weight of world opinion should be brought to bear in favour of a solution guaranteeing both sufficient rights to the Chechens to enable them to preserve their identity, and sufficient rights to the Russians to enable them to function in the role of stabilisers of the region as a whole. It should be possible to build on Russian statements of their intention to maintain human rights in Chechnya.

In every continent, we see "peoples" claiming self-determination with varying degrees of justification. Peace will largely depend on whether the dominant powers and the "peoples" can between them find arrangements that enable the peoples to maintain and develop their own ways of life without disrupting the larger structures that are generally conducive to security and economic development.

One misconception to be set aside is the idea that self-determination necessarily means full sovereign independence.

There is a risk that if Russia were simply to crush the Chechens, this would be seen as a fatal defeat for the whole principle of self-determination, and a disastrous example would be set to many oppressive regimes.

Yours sincerely, DENZIL DUNNETT London, W8

23 December The writer was HM Ambassador to Senegal, Mauritania, Mali and Guinea, 1973-76; and to Guinea-Bissau, 1975-76.