"What really matters in international law is strength and power"

Verena Graf

INTERVIEW: Verena Graf, from the International League for the Rights and Liberation of Peoples. She has been awarded with CIEMEN's International Prize 2007.

Kosovo finally seems to be on the verge of independence. What is your opinion on the current situation in the Balkans?

Kosovo is a very special case. Independence is now inevitable, and it will happen soon. But we also know that Russia and Serbia will be against it. But the whole process has been going on for so long, and is so complex... Kosovo should have begun it all much earlier

With international law, what's written down on paper matters to some extent, but what really matters today is strength, power and the support the powerful give to one another. But Kosovo is an important case, because it will set a precedent for others, such as Nagorno-Karabakh, and could give encouragement to the Basques.

Nagorno-Karabakh. How is this example different from the situation elsewhere?

Well, everything is really quiet there, there's no war, to all intents and purposes it functions as a state and has a statute. But it's also quiet there because no country promotes anything there, nobody recognizes it, nothing.

Nagorno-Karabakh may be quiet, but it's still there.

There has been some public debate in Catalonia about whether, in the case of a 'yes' vote on independence, 51% in favour would be enough to declare independence?

Well, mathematically speaking, 51% is enough, but I don't think that it would be a successful outcome, because what really matters is strength and support. If a population is divided, split in the middle, it just doesn't work. It's all about being able to function as a country, democratically, with justice and peace.

Western Sahara is the site of another conflict that seems to be going on unendingly. Is there a solution for the Sahrawi people?

What is atypical about the case of the Sahrawi people is that the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) is recognized by the African Union as a state. But at the same time, at UN meetings, they are represented by NGOs. The SADR exists on two levels: being an African state doesn't give the Sahrawi people much room for manoeuvre. Besides, other states aren't lobbying for a solution to the problem, so it's a bit like the situation in Palestine.

It also seems to me that the Sahrawi people, no doubt because the situation has remained unchanged for some time, are not represented effectively. It's true in Geneva: being represented there, or in Brussels, isn't enough. The Sahrawi people have got used to the current status situation because there is no open warfare. Both sides have got used to it.

But I have always thought that after Eritrea, the Sahrawi people would be the next community to solve its problems. But this is not yet the case.

Eritrea exemplifies how independence is not always enough to solve all of a nation's problems. Eritrea's progress has not been as satisfactory as had been hoped.

I'm familiar with the situation in Eritrea and I've followed its struggle for independence closely. Regrettably, though, the current situation is so bad that today there are Eritrean political refugees and exiles in Switzerland. The situation is extremely disheartening: there's no constitution or elections. What was the point of 30 years of war? To make things worse?

Things need to change dramatically. Ethiopia, for example, has changed. Although the situation there is not ideal, at least they now have a constitution and political parties. But I'm really troubled by what's happening in Eritrea, it's a real nightmare.

Well, it's already time to finish, we've talked about some really interesting issues...

...Yes, and there are many similar examples, such as Tibet. But China is a special case. To tell the truth, I wouldn't like to see China cut up like the USSR, because that would have a huge impact on us, on the rest of the world. There are so many cultural and ethnic minorities in China. China's cultural and ethnic diversity is so interesting and incredibly rich.

And China, not only because of the Olympic Games, will soon be the number one world power in economic and political terms, but perhaps not in military terms. There's no doubt about it, whatever the cost, however much repression is involved... and the Chinese won't be any better than the Americans. From one world power to another...


Verena Graf is Secretary General of the Geneva-based International League for the Rights and Liberation of Peoples, which enjoys permanent representation at the UN.