By Benjamin Villanti*
By Benjamin Villanti*
Morocco World News
New York, January 31, 2012
Most people may not be familiar with the Aland Islands, but the autonomy plan that resolved the conflict between their inhabitants, Finland and Sweden, has long been famous to practitioners of conflict resolution. This past January 18th, The International Peace Institute in New York City, with the permanent missions to the United Nations of Finland and Indonesia, held a seminar on autonomy in conflict resolution. It was organized in conjunction with the 90th year anniversary of the entry into force of the autonomy plan that continues to govern the Aland Islands of Finland.
The dispute over the Aland Islands arose when, after World War I, Finland had gained its independence from Russia following a bloody civil war. The Islands, along with Finland had been ruled by Russia since 1809 as part of the Duchy of Finland, but the Aland islanders, who were culturally Swedish, sought to join Sweden. When Sweden and Finland were unable to resolve the dispute, the situation was referred to the League of Nations. In 1921 Sweden and Finland agreed to an autonomy arrangement that provided the Aland islanders protections for their Swedish cultural and language heritage, territorial autonomy and demilitarization of the islands, which lie close to the Swedish coast. Today the Aland Islands is the wealthiest region in Finland, and eleventh richest area within the European Union.
Speakers at the seminar included Finland’s ambassador to the United Nations, Jarmo Vinnanen, Camilla Gunnel, Premier of the Government of Aland, and Elisabeth Naucler, Member of the Finnish Parliament. The ambassador noted that the Finns had been open to the autonomy plan having had autonomy under the Russian Empire between 1908 and 1917, and understood how it felt when a ruler infringed on the autonomy.
Ms. Gunnel, as speaker of the Aland Parliament, explained in more detail the autonomy arrangement that has governed the relationship between the Aland Islands and Finland for close to ninety-years. The Aland Islands (population today 27,000) has its own Parliament of 30 members. It possesses extensive legislative and administrative functions in areas, for example, of education, health, police and the environment. The islands have one representative to the Finnish parliament. A governor to the islands is appointed by the Finish state, but with the agreement of the Aland Islands premier. If they cannot agree on the appointment, the Finnish head of government must select a governor from a list of 5 candidates nominated by the Aland premier. There also exists what is called the Aland Delegation as a conflict resolution mechanism to resolve any disagreements between the islands and the state.
Another feature includes the requirement that the Aland parliament approves any international treaties that the Finnish government enters before coming into force on the Islands. “Separation and cooperation should be part of autonomy,” stated Gunnel. She also highlighted that autonomy “does not have to be static,” noting that the Autonomy Act has evolved since it was signed in 1922 with revisions in 1951, 1991, 2005 and 2009.
Ms. Naucler, of the Finish parliament, stated that the Aland Islands should not be seen as a model since the circumstances of each conflict are different. The arrangement could, however, provide inspiration and lessons for other minority disputes. Lessons according to Naucler were the importance of both sides overcoming initial fears about the idea of autonomy; the reaction of the kin state is crucial, in this case Sweden; security and financial arrangements and; the importance of international guarantees reinforcing the autonomy agreement. This latter point was one raised by several speakers, as international guarantees can assuage the state’s fear that autonomy can lead to secession and the autonomous region’s concern that the state will encroach on its autonomy.
Other speakers at the seminar included Liam Anderson, Associate Professor at Wright State University. Anderson’s work has included close study of autonomy plans for the Kurdish region and federalism arrangements in Iraq. For Anderson it is important to distinguish between different forms of federations. He labeled federal systems that separate a country into different ethnic regions as Ethnic-federations, such has been advocated for Iraq where Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds would have their own autonomous regions. This type of power-sharing arrangement condemns the central government to gridlock, which has been the case in Bosnia, ultimately leaving the government too weak to hold the country together.
On the other hand, Anderson called arrangements a Federacy when an autonomous region exists within a strong central state. The problem with this federation is that the central government is too strong compared to the autonomous region and tends to encroach on its autonomy. Anderson noted this has not occurred in the case of the Aland Islands. He also explained the arrangement in Spain that has avoided this problem. Autonomy exists for the historic nations of the Catalans and the Basques, but the Castilian speaking areas have also been divided into autonomous communities. The effect has been to create an identity among the autonomous communities. This has meant that ethnic minorities have not been alone in resisting central government efforts to reel in the powers of the regions.
The UN’s Chief of Mediation Support, Policy and Mediation Division, Robert Dann, also addressed the prospects that autonomy solutions present in conflict resolution. “The role of a mediator is to help expand the imagination of the parties,” stated Dann, noting, “Autonomy can be a way to address calls for self-determination and separateness.” Dann made the observation that the best autonomy arrangements seem to exist where the UN has not been involved, such as Northern Ireland, Aceh, Hong Kong and Catalonia. He noted this is because parties in conflict often resist considering autonomy, seeking nothing less than sovereign territorial integrity or full self-determination. Dann also explained the different roles of the UN, either to facilitate an autonomy agreement or make the institutions of an autonomous arrangement viable.
Other speakers discussed the autonomy agreement Indonesia reached with Aceh in 2005, and the Abeyei conflict in Sudan. The Sahara was mentioned several times as an unresolved conflict where autonomy can be envisioned as an end state. In fact, Morocco proposed in 2007 an autonomy plan as a basis for negotiations with the Polisario Front.
The International Peace Institute was founded in 1970. It’s headquartered in New York with an office in Vienna. It conducts analysis and brings together practitioners in order to prevent and resolve international conflicts.
*Benjamin Villanti is Morocco World News’ editor and contributor.
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