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Powder Keg

In the run up to last month's referendum in South Sudan, it was widely accepted that the overwhelming majority would opt for independence. Similarly, even before Kosovo unilaterally declared independence two years ago, it was widely agreed that the majority of its people endorsed the move.

What is striking, therefore, is what went before in these places. Sudan's civil war raged for four decades before the 2005 peace agreement. And when the international community ended the post-Cold War firestorm in the Balkans with the 1995 Dayton Accords, the Kosovars, despite their pleas, were actively excluded. Instead, they were told to make the best of it under Serbia's rule. Even the international intervention in 1999 established a peace that held independence to be both undesirable and unnecessary. Sudan's peace agreement required the South to seek unity with the North.

The point here is not that the self-evident desire of peoples for self-rule is routinely ignored, and denied, by the international community - though this has largely been true. Rather, it is that, firstly, strident international opposition to a people's demand for independence is not necessarily forever, and, secondly, the future is utterly unpredictable.

The past few decades have seen momentous changes in international order. The bi-polar world of the Cold War gave way in 1990 to a US-led international order based on the liberal international vision first articulated by the US President Woodrow Wilson in the aftermath of WW1. The recent 'rise' of China (like that of Japan in the eighties) is routinely posited as heralding the decline of US-led liberal order and the emergence of a 'multi-polar' world - though this remains to be seen (there is no evidence, for example, that China or any other major pole is seeking, like the Soviet Union did, to roll back a world order predicated on liberal democracy and market economics).

The next few years and decades will undoubtedly bring further changes in the international system. Whatever is emphatically asserted today will not necessarily be so in future - as the cases of Sudan and Kosovo demonstrate. But, one principle will be ceaselessly pursued in an increasingly interconnected world: stability.

It is the quest for assured stability that has led, especially since 1990, to the West-led effort to install liberal democracy and market economics the world over. Today's institutions and processes of international governance - including the UN and its agencies and institutions (the World Bank and IMF, especially) - turn on consolidating these principles. And it is easily forgotten how China, India and other emergent 'poles' are deeply committed to stabilizing and extending the market-led economic order that has been emergent since WW2. (Their united response to the 2008 financial crisis is a case in point).

Indeed, the independence of Kosovo and South Sudan, once resisted on the basis of preserving stability, came to be supported precisely as the means to ensure it. As Kosovo declared independence, then British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, justified Western support on the basis this was "less dangerous than stifling secessionist feeling."

It is unsurprising that in the wake of South Sudan's referendum, the argument that allowing - or even enabling - secession may be a useful step towards advancing peace is being made more widely. Of course, no two cases are the same. However, in a world where states do not wage wars of conquest, the principle of territorial integrity has less relevance as a cornerstone of world peace when powerful internal demands have to be violently denied in its defence.

International commitment to Sri Lanka's territorial integrity - repeatedly asserted throughout the Tamil armed struggle for independence - was predicated entirely on the assumptions that firstly, most Tamils do not want independence (hence the logic of federalism), and, secondly, that once the war was over, Sri Lanka would 'resume' movement towards market democracy, thereby ensuring the life-chances of all its citizens. The internationally-assisted defeat of the LTTE has, however, produced the very opposite.

Today's 'stability' rests entirely on the Sinhala state' militarized occupation of the Tamil homeland. In the coming years, the international community's anxiety over a peace being 'lost' will prove well founded. While the state will not, despite international entreaties, cease its efforts to consolidate Sinhala ethnocracy,  this very project will sustain and fuel Tamils' thirst for Tamil Eelam. It is therefore only a matter of time before Sri Lanka returns to the international security agenda, as Serbia and Sudan have in recent years.