It seems the crisis in Sudan has started to drop off the media agenda. The Guardian piece by David Clark which I reference above is more about his inability to cope with the non-existence of international law and the unworkability of the UN, rather than the suffering of the poor people of Darfur (or, for that matter, of Beja). It is regrettable that commentators are unable to prevent their sadness and revulsion at slaughter from exciting their agitation for constitutional change. Scarcely was the blood of the innocents washed from the streets of Madrid but some Guardian commentator had called for greater European co-operation against terrorism.

This is not to say that international law does not have some effect on suffering from war and terrorism. We need not look much further beyond Sudan in the Rift Valley to find where this is true: Somaliland.


Somaliland is a small, independent, largely democratic country next to Ethiopia and Djibouti. The homelands of the Somali people ended up inside French, British and Italian colonial territory and in what is now Ethiopia. The French colony has become Djibouti, and the British and Italian territories voted to merge on independence. A few years after the merger, the democratic government of Somalia was overthrown by a dictatorship which dissolved into civil war. Since the collapse of central government in Somalia, the former British part has become independent under the name Somaliland.

But no-one has ever heard of it. International aid for development is not forthcoming, because governments refuse to recognise it. Why?

The sad fact is that so-called international law is furnishing excuses for governments not to recognise Somaliland. It must always be borne in mind when considering matters pertaining to international relations that states are basically free to ignore international law when it suits them, and that circumstances which may be explained by a violation of or self-contradiction in international law may often be better accounted for by its non-existence. Having cast a delicate ontological veil over that unsightly possibility, the point of departure is nowadays the Montevideo Convention on New Countries and Stuff 1933, which asserts commonsense criteria for statehood such as having territory, a permanent population, and an autonomous government. (Of course, the Montevideo Convention isn't really called that, nor is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea actually known as the Prevention of New Countries Convention 1982.) So far so good for Somaliland; it has its government, people and territory. The "legal" obstacle is that "illegal" attainment of statehood can't be permitted, unless it was done in the course of national self-determination. This has narrowed somewhat since the European Community drew up guidelines on recognising states in Eastern Europe which hold that statehood should not be recognised in respect of just any old national group, only one whose aspirant state occupied a pre-existing territorial unit such as a member state of a federation like Yugoslavia. This stricture isn't too harmful to Somaliland's case: it effectively occupies exactly the same territory of the former British colony. The EC criteria also specify a preference that the aspirant state have a good democratic and human rights record, but we can ignore that as they promptly recognised Belarus anyway. The problem lies in just how it re-acquired its independence.

There are just not enough parallels of a former colony adhering to another former colony, getting taken over by a dictatorship and then slipping loose again and emerging as a democratic state whilst the other colony dissolves. This is going to happen very rarely. In any case, the decision to recognise Somaliland will be taken on political grounds, not "legal". To the extent that the statehood criteria under international law ought to evolve, they ought to reward efforts towards democracy, and reduce the territory constituting "safe havens" for lawlessness and breeding grounds for terrorism. However, I expect a state of lawlessness does not conduce to the establishment of the sort of terrorist bases which existed in Sudan and Afghanistan, and is not likely to do so in rump Somalia (though the Americans claim some al Qaeda presence).

The British government hasn't quite got round to recognising Somaliland, as this would, it is claimed, undermine peace efforts in Somalia itself. The rest of Somalia is still a mess of warlords and factions; the only reason you can get from one end of Mogadishu to the other is because the local imams have set up Sharia courts which have cracked down on the bandits who used to run roadblocks every mile or so. Aid agencies used to have to bribe their way across this city with the money of donors and taxpayers; it is simply obscene that whichever southern warlord can most plausibly claim continuity with a dictator overthrown thirteen years ago gets to be the internationally accepted representative of this country without a government, whilst the stable and semi-democratic northwest's efforts to build their country up go ignored. Without recognition, getting aid to the Somalilanders is considerably harder, and it may already be too late: the newly "elected" president of Somalia is intent on carving out the bits of Somaliland occupied by his clan, and is portraying the Somalilanders as just one more breakaway warlord faction. His clan skirmish is elevated to a battle between pan-Somali nationalism and upstart democracy.

The believed necessity of political unity in Somaliland, and the threat posed by the incursions is having a sad effect on press freedom in that country. It can only be hoped that security is restored before this nascent democracy withers away in the name of national security.

However it is not because of the recent clashes that Somalia has been in the news recently, as it is also the home country of Mogadishu-born Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Hirsi Ali wrote a film called "Submission" (roughly the meaning of the word "Islam" in Arabic); this film features diaphanously veiled women, across whose bodies various Koranic texts can be discerned. Artistic depiction of the human form is controversial within Islam even without coupling it with explicit criticism of the purported Koranic sanctioning of domestic violence against women, and this film was accused of going much too far by Dutch Muslim leaders. Apart from elevating underwear to its highest geopolitical profile since Monica Lewinsky, the film sparked off a political catastrophe as its producer, Theo van Gogh, was assassinated last week by a alleged member of an Islamic "terrorist group". (It is an uninviting feature of Dutch law that guilt by association remains such a prominent feature of its criminal statutes. Being a member of a criminal group is itself a criminal offence. It need not be established that one individual aided, abetted, incited, conspired with (etc) some other person committing a criminal offence, only that some property of criminality subsisted within a collectivity of people of which the accused was a member.)

Hirsi Ali herself is being threatened with death. The Dutch public has been traumatised by the killing and threats, in a similar convulsion to that which gripped the nation on the assassination of Pim Fortuyn, and fear the collapse of traditional Dutch tolerant values in their society. Before the Soho nailbomber, and informed largely by trying to understand the pathologies of obsessives on the Internet, I had wondered why people didn't use terrorism as an instrument for provoking government crackdowns. There seems to be little defending against this tactic. At any rate, the Dutch government has announced the relevant crackdown...