Disputed Borders

In colonial times borders were drawn on a map. The people were ignored.


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Numerous borders were drawn by the European colonial powers. When the countries became independent the new states contained many ethnic groups, some of them traditional enemies. In Africa the worst example is probably Sudan where the north is inhabited by Muslim Arabic speakers and the south by non-Muslim (many of them Christians) speakers of various, mainly Nilotic, languages. Before colonialism the Arabs of the north regarded the southerners as sources of slaves. There are reports that slavery has revived in recent years. Since independence of the whole Sudan there have been many years of war between the southerners wishing to avoid the application of Islamic law and other rulings of the government controlled by northerners.

Possibly, this border dispute will be solved after the South Sudan became independent in 2011.

Another African example is Chad, also on the divide between Muslim northerners and Christian or traditional southerners. A civil war has been going on for most of the time since independence, though not at present (2005-10).

Almost all African countries contain several ethnic groups. (The only exception is Somalia, and there are numerous Somalis in the neighboring countries; also the Somalis fight among themselves). To the south of Sudan is Uganda which has constant tensions between Nilotic northerners and Bantu southerners. An ethnic redivision might unite northern Uganda with southern Sudan as a new independent state. Every African country without exception has people straddling the borders.

In Asia there are examples of arbitrary borders. One of the most notorious is Kurdistan. The Kurdish people are divided between Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey. The peace conference at the end of the first world war failed to give them a state when considering the fate of the former Ottoman Empire, but incorporated them arbitrarily in the new countries created then. They have been fighting at different times, especially in Iraq, Turkey and Iran. Of these, Iraq can be considered the most artificial, with two oppressed minorities which together would make a majority.

The border between India and Pakistan is disputed at the Rann of Cutch and in Kashmir. Both have been the occasion for wars.

India and Burma also have fighting minorities; so do Thailand and Vietnam. Japan has a dispute with the Soviet Union (Russia) over the Kurile Islands occupied by the Soviet Union during the second world war.

Indonesia was created by the Dutch and contains a number of traditional kingdoms and different cultures.

In Europe divided ethnic groups are found in Romania, where there is a large Hungarian minority; Yugoslavia with Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia, as well as Croats and Slovenians and Serbs, the largest group, and Hungarians in Vojvodina. Spain and Francehave the Basques. Belgium is divided between French and Flemish (Dutch) speakers, and a small German minority. The Balkan area: Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania and Greece has been a zone of ethnic instability for the last two centuries.

The Soviet Union was a multi-ethnic state, and Russia still is, with the same kind of problems that are found in Africa. There are several potential or actual civil wars in the southern areas between Armenians and Azeris, Georgians and others and various Turkic speaking groups. The Crimea was taken from the Ottomans in the 18th century, "given" by Khrushchov to Ukraine, and its Tatar inhabitants deported by Stalin. Siberia is an empty land close to a densely populated China. Can a weak Russia prevent Chinese from settling there? Probably not. One of the most notorious areas of disputed borders is Caucasus.

In Central Asia Kirgizia shows the problem that its borders were defined by Stalin as part of the Soviet Union, but the borders include several ethnic groups, including the Kirgiz and the Uzbeks, who in June 2010 were being massacred.

Tamils in Sri Lanka were ignored when the British created a united country out of what had once been separate kingdoms for Tamils and Sinhalese.

In South America there have been border disputes in the past and some may revive. Bolivia once had a sea coast which was taken from it by Chile and Peru. Guatemala has claimed Belize in the past and may do so again. There are potential disputes between Guyana, Brazil and Venezuela.

Chile and Argentina have had a dispute over the position of the frontier in Tierra del Fuego and especially over the Beagle Channel, which has implications for oil exploration. Ecuador has disputes with Peru over land in the Amazon area.

Related to the border problem are the peoples with no fixed homeland who are at home in many states but have a shared culture. These include the Jews, Gypsies (Romany), Overseas Chinese. The regime of nation states has not allowed these people their freedom. To these must be added in recent times the millions of migrants born in one country but living in another, especially Africans and Asians living in Europe and Latin Americans in the United States. Their wishes are frequently ignored by peoples and governments and they are often treated as racial inferiors, though they are usually doing vital but dirty work which the natives no longer wish to do.

Throughout human history states have risen and fallen and borders moved, usually by military action but reflecting economic and ethnic realities. Must this process be considered to be at an end and all existing borders frozen? Many of the peoples mentioned above think there should be changes. Related to this problem is nationalism, the belief that only a particular group has rights, or that every ethnic group must have its own Nation State. This is no longer practical.

Interesting reading
Norman Davies - Vanished Kingdoms

Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe

Vanished Kingdoms

Many states have existed in the past. Many present states may split or amalgamate in the future, including Belgium (to split) and the United Kingdom itself.



Possible Solutions

This may be one of the world's most intractable problems. Only a superior power or mutual agreement can redraw borders. At present the United Nations does not possess this power. Some divided countries have joined: Germany, Yemen, Vietnam, Cameroon. Korea may do so in the future. Pakistan divided into two (Pakistan and Bangladesh). The USSR and Yugoslavia broke up. Otherwise none of the possibly desirable changes have occurred.

The ruling elites of the existing states usually believe they will lose power and influence if their country merges with a neighbor, or if districts are exchanged. In Africa, which has the most arbitrary borders, the African Union has a policy of refusing to consider any changes. But the AU represents governments rather than peoples.

It is possible that the spread of democracy in many multi-ethnic states may make the problem worse, or at least more visible. This seems to be the case in the former Soviet Union where ethnic conflict in the Caucasus (Armenians, Georgians, Azeris, Ossetians, Chechens, Inguish) and Central Asia (Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kirgiz) is growing. It seems likely that democracy in Africa might also increase ethnic conflict unless borders can be redrawn. Yugoslavia has had a similar problem.

The only successful multi-ethnic state at present is Switzerland where people with four languages and two religions have managed to co-exist without conflict for over a century. It has been suggested that this has come about because the basic unit of Swiss democracy is the Canton (or County) rather than the federation. Switzerland grew by voluntary association of the Cantons rather than by conquest or dynastic acquisition.

Swiss national governments are all coalitions of parties and regions and many decisions of government can be challenged by numerous referendums. Perhaps democracy in multi-ethnic states needs to become closer to the Swiss model rather than that of Britain or America which have large dominating ethnic groups or languages.

In Europe, linguistic groups may emerge from the national states as a result of the integration of the European Union. The Welsh and Scots in Britain and the Bretons and Occitanians in France may acquire their own political units within the Community. Belgium has already divided into linguistic regions. The Catalans in Spain may also be among those who would like a new pattern. The European Union itself may be the solution to problems in Europe, and may be a model for other areas. Belgium seems likely to divide into its Flemish and French components.

In Latin America there are signs that the informal communities and economies may come to supersede the national states for some purposes. Perhaps the same may happen in Africa and other multi-ethnic regions.

Some thinkers have suggested that bio-regions are the natural units of biological life. They apply this to the artificial borders of the states of the United States and suggest rearrangements or perhaps new types of governmental institutions. South America is an area where bio- (or eco-) regions might be a replacement for the present state structure, perhaps within a Community or Commonwealth of the existing states.

The territorial nation state of settled people has never suited the nomadic or transnational peoples: Romany, Jews, Tuareg, Fulani. When population density was low the nomadic people could travel without disturbing the settled people. Now the land is used intensively and they find private property everywhere. The Jews in their Diaspora were suspected of disloyalty by the people who believed themselves the owners of the land. (But if we go back in time far enough, almost all our ancestors have moved from somewhere else.)

Last revised 27/10/11


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