An island life for me

Tempers have flared up again between Russia and Japan over the disputed Kuril Islands. Islands remain at the centre of many international territorial conflicts.

On Thursday 10 February Japan’s foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, restated his country’s commitment to the belief that the four southernmost islands of the Kuril group remain under Japanese jurisdiction. His call comes after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited the contested archipelago in November last year. During his trip Medvedev promised greater development and outlined an increase in military presence on the islands, clearly not a move that has been welcomed in Tokyo. Remarkably, the fractious nature of the two countries’ relationship over the Kurils means that they still have not got round to signing a joint peace agreement to end World War Two hostilities between them.

Islands are at the centre of an ongoing dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia. The San Andres and Providencia group in the Caribbean has been part of Colombia since the 1920s but Nicaragua took the issue to the International Court of Justice in 2001, which ruled in favour of Bogota. Managua’s main argument is over location, and the islands are much closer to Nicaragua, but it would not be surprising if the tourist factor also plays a part in their disquiet: the islands are beautiful Caribbean hotposts, an English creole is widely spoken and visitor numbers are growing.

Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela. Source: marcellogentile1, YouTube, 11/02/11

At the other end of the Americas, there are The Falklands, or Las Malvinas, as they are known in Buenos Aires. A well-known island disupte which provoked a war between the two claimants in 1982. The UK posititon is clear: the islands were, are, and will remain British, for as long as the Falklanders themselves wish to remain under British jurisdiction (which at the moment they do). The Argentine outlook takes a similar line: the islands were, are, and ought to be part of Argentina. One only needs to look at an Argentine national map to understand the geographical stubbornness. But there has been a change of dynamic since 1982. Back then, Chile and the US both openly backed the UK, and Spain supported Argentina. But now many of Latin America’s leaders have openly urged the devolution of the islands back to Argentina, and idea rejected by London. Hugo Chavez famously railed against what he views as another example of ‘Western imperialism’.

The Kurils are next to Japan and form part of a territorial island link chain that goes north to Kamchatka. The Falklands are nearly 8,000 miles away from the UK. But the issue of island disputes is extremely old, complicated and is prevalent across the world (the examples above are just three of the more prominent disputes). It is not an argument that can be simply resolved by stating history, distance from home country or ‘proper ownership’.

A new nation for Central Africa?

On Sunday 9 January, the Sudanese autonomous region of Southern Sudan will hold a referendum on independence. Millions of voters are expected to approve separation from the North.

But leaving the north and becoming Africa’s newest independent state will be fraught with difficulty. Sudan is split many ways: there is an ongoing civil war in Darfur; the Eastern Front region is making separatist noises; and the division between north and south is clear. Ethnically, the North is majority-Arab, it is Muslim and Arabic-speaking and comparatively well-developed, with a modern capital in Khartoum, a commercial hub in Omurdan and has long enjoyed the riches from oilfields which would straddle the new border with the south.

The South has many independent goals, the main one of which is to be able to reap more of the rewards from the oil which is deposited on its side. But in education, literacy, life expectancy, business skills, infrastructure, national development the newly-independent south would lag behind the north and it is desperate to catch up.

Sudan would no longer be Africa’s largest country with Algeria assuming that position. But the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, has said that he will help the South adjust to independence and aid the nation-building programme that will be started if Sunday’s vote turns out as predicted.

But despite this diplomatic olive-branch from al-Bashir, the South may turn its back on aid from Khartoum and look to employ its oilfields for its own, independent gain by fraternising more with the countries to its south. Animism and Christianity are the prevalent religions in the South,as opposed the the Islam in the North of Sudan, and the politics in the South are more tribal, a similarity with countries like Kenya.  These particular religious affiliations may endear themselves more to the development of political links with nations such as Uganda and Tanzania.

Geopolitically, the South sits on the frontier between the Muslim and Arabic-speaking deserts of North Africa and the Swahili and English-speaking Christian forests and savannahs of Central East Africa. The East African Community (EAC) is a powerful regional bloc consisting of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi and has well-developed trade and business links. There are even ideas to launch a common currency for the area, although the group is split over the proposal. This could be the direction in which Salva Kiir Mayardit, the would-be Southern president, may want to take his new nation and over the coming months, Sudanese, African and international delegates galore will flood the area to help out as Africa’s newest nation takes her first steps as an independent state.