Referendum, The Way?

In the last decade, we have seen the birth of two new countries, East Timor and Kosovo; both of which gained their independence not through negotiations but through internal processes of referendum where people sturdily asserted their call for independence with the active support and lobbying efforts of the international community. Today, history witnesses the making of another nation, as the people of Greenland overwhelming voted for self-rule, a mandate which has been articulated as a step toward independence. This participatory process of referendum has proven to be more inclusive than negotiations, which are usually more exclusive and has the tendency to be bogged down by legality. The referendum process addresses core political issues and is being perceived as a critical aspect in solving protracted political conflicts.  

Within this same time frame of the last ten years, the international community has borne witness to the continuing failure of a number of critical peace negotiations, some of which have entirely collapsed and returned to war, while others are on the brink of resuming armed confrontation after having reached an impasse. A number of peace processes around the world which had been projected as possible ‘road maps’ by the international community have failed miserably to find a solution; and are now being seriously questioned. The important point therefore is: Are negotiations an effective method to solve political conflicts? The last ten years have proved otherwise. Rather the approach of seeking the will of the people by way of a referendum or plebiscite has been successful in modern politics; and the process of exercising one’s will is consistent with values of democracy.  
While the art of negotiations are an essential component of diplomacy, the dynamic of international politics has failed to empower and enable negotiation processes to become an effective means of conflict transformation. One of the drawbacks of negotiations is the disturbing fact that very often the process is taken out of the hands of conflicting parties who are in negotiation and because of this lack of ownership, the outcome often does not lie with the conflicting parties. Real politik and state control are the other contributing factors that create deadlocks in negotiations and often do not encourage the process to provide out-of-the box options. Naturally such a limited approach only causes further distrust and polarization and rather than resolving the issue, it only further complicates them.  

Keeping in mind the consistency in which negotiations have only ended in renewal of political violence or an impasse that stubbornly refuses to think and act outside of the conventional point of view, the need for alternative ways to address protracted conflicts of a political nature has become fundamental to conflict transformation. It is in this light that the question of referendum as a means to break the impasse cause by protracted negotiations has become affective in creating new and viable options for political solutions. The relevance of referendum in conflict transformation has been proved and within 2008 itself two cases have exercised them. 

Nelson Mandela has been proved right when he stated that “only free men can negotiate;” and perhaps in an irony twist of fate, the referendum may prove to be the most effective way to resolve political conflicts in modern history.