Recognise us! The Unrepresented Nations & Peoples Organisation

Andrew Mueller
11 July 2005

They sound more like Monty Python sketches than sporting fixtures: football matches pitting the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria against Southern Cameroons,and West Papua versus South Moluccas. Yet these games occurred, in June 2005, in the yet more unlikely setting of The Hague, and they may – eventually – add up to the precursor of a small revolution in the geopolitical consciousness.

This four-team tournament (won, incidentally, by South Moluccas in a spirited 3-2 final against Ichkeria) was a curtain-raiser to the seventh general assembly of the Unrepresented Nations & Peoples Organisation (Unpo), a sort of un-UN for countries which, if the United Nations were a nightclub, would be rebuffed by the bouncers with a firm “your name’s not down, you’re not coming in”.

Despite the notable absence of solidarity and goodwill from the final – which might, by all accounts, have necessitated the deployment of some sort of international peacekeeping force had it gone to extra-time – the first Unpo Cup was judged a success. One of the resolutions agreed by the general assembly was the establishment of a full-scale World Cup for non-nations, an event which could result in some truly fantastical contests: Tatarstan vs Buryatia, Cabinda vs Nagaland, Kurdistan vs Somaliland, East Turkestan vs Circassia, Zanzibar vs Scania, Assyria vs Mapuche.

The Unpo general assembly on 24-26 June looked like any international summit: there was a circular arrangement of sombre delegates, most in suits, some in more exotic national dress, their flags arranged along the wall behind the conference chair.

It also sounded like any international summit, which is to say that a great deal of the deliberations was devoted to eye-watering procedural detail and speeches which could have benefited from rigorous, if not actually brutal, editing. The only immediately noticeable difference was that the flags were not the ones usually flying at such wingdings. These, instead, were the banners of those nationalities who, due to varying combinations of bad luck, betrayal, occupation, injustice, invasion, indifference and the whims of history, have missed out on the security and standing of statehood.

The anguish of the invisible

Some of the entities represented by these flags of the Unpo delegations were entrancingly obscure: aside from the above-mentioned, there were representatives from Chuvash, Abkhazia, Aceh, Khmer Krom, and the Buffalo River Dene Nation, an Indian community in Canada.

A couple are reasonably well-known: Kosova (Kosovo), which was bombed into a limbo of semi-independence from Serbia by Nato in 1999; Tibet, which has become a popular cause among actors, rock groups and others whose likelihood of being able to point to Tibet on a map would seem a poor bet. Another is a full-fledged first-world powerhouse: Taiwan, owner of the world’s 17th-largest economy and a formidable modern military.

There were also a couple of delegations clamouring for entry to this club for peoples with nowhere else to go: Baluchistan and Talish, both of whom reacted to their formal admissions to the Unpo with a delight which was genuinely moving.

The existence of the Unpo and, more to the point, the sixty organisations and parties which constitute its membership, seems an anomaly. We are, allegedly, and especially in Europe, living in an increasingly post-state world, where national identity counts for less and less, and borders for even less than that. This is, of course, a wholly logical approach: given that we do absolutely nothing to earn or deserve a national identity beyond being born or raised on one or other side of a line on a map, it is absurd that people regard their nationality as important.

We all do, though: go anywhere in the world, stop anyone in the street, and ask them to describe themselves. In no particular order, they’ll tell you their name, their job, and where they’re from. That being the case, it is possible to imagine the anguish of people for whom where they’re from isn’t an instantly recognisable brand but the beginning of a sequence of bewildered questions.

The ladder of recognition

I can go anywhere in the world and tell people I’m Australian. While many people will have only a cartoonish image of what that means, the not displeasing idea often arises that, despite appearances, I’m a rugged son of the bush, capable of killing a crocodile with my bare hands. At least no one asks: “where the hell’s Australia?” or “is that even a place?”

Statehood, and the right to think of oneself as the citizen of a state, are precious prizes which history and geography distribute with terrifying caprice, something illustrated perfectly by the situation of the Unpo’s office in The Hague.

The Netherlands is a small country with no obvious natural borders which has been invaded, occupied, liberated, united and separated many times, and which could have ceased to exist on several occasions; it was once, indeed, rent apart by a secessionist movement similar to those attending the general assembly, when the southern Netherlands seceded in 1830 and established itself as Belgium.

There is no especially good reason why the Netherlands should have a seat in the United Nations, ambassadors in every capital, a monarchy, its own military and a place in the World Cup draw and why Kurdistan (to pick but one example) should not.

The Unpo is regarded by the members I met at the general assembly as an important and necessary halfway house, especially in facilitating contact with international bodies like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, whose attentions are often all too necessary in places where questions of nationality and sovereignty are in dispute.

The Unpo is, however, struggling for funds. In its fourteen-year history, six of its former members have been promoted up a division to full-fledged statehood: Estonia, Latvia, Armenia, Georgia, Palau and East Timor. It would be a splendid gesture on the part of all six if they spared a thought, and a few dollars, for those still struggling in the lower leagues who aspire to join them.

Further Links:

UNPO home page

International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs

Minority Rights Group

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