My Word

My Word

The “Blue Water Rule” and the Self-Determination of Nations
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September 21, 2017

As far as the United Nations and most UN member states are concerned, self-determination has its limits. States such as Turkey, Syria, Spain, PR China, Pakistan, Israel, USA, India and theorganization itself all seek to limit the application of “self-determination” to most of the world’s indigenous nations. They do so by holding to the “blue water rule” that was adopted by the UN on Dec 16, 1952, in Resolution 637 VII.

The “blue water rule”—also known as the “Belgian Thesis” or the “Salt Water Thesis”—asserts that: … to be eligible for decolonization, the presence of “blue water” between the colony and the colonizing country or a discreet set of boundaries would be needed. The so-called “blue water rule” emerged in the UN resolution after Belgium decided to give up its colonial possessions and attempted furthermore to move the United States to “decolonize” American Indian nations by permitting self-determination to be applied to these native peoples.

The United States representatives countered by pushing the “blue water rule” thereby sidestepping the Belgian proposal (the US was quick to obtain support from many UN members states that had indigenous peoples “inside” their boundaries) and gained General Assembly approval. Under UN Resolution 637 VII the world’s states have agreed that nations located inside UN member states may not seek or obtain independence through self-determination.

The “blue water rule” has salient importance in the new century since enforcing this rule means states will engage in violence against the politically restive nation or risk the breakdown of the state. This is the situation now looming in Spain and in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq as a result of two referendums on which Kurds will vote on Sept. 25 2017 and Catalonians will vote on Oct. 1 2017.

The Spanish government sent military policy into Barcelona on Sept. 16 to arrest the Catalan Vice-President and Finance Minister (SEE: in an attempt to force a halt to the popular vote on the referendum. The Spanish government claims that since there is no provision allowing for a nation to separate from the state as an act of self-determination then the vote for the referendum is “illegal.” In other words, absent the “words,” the act is “illegal.”

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont called foul claiming that the government in Madrid was essentially suspending Catalonia’s autonomy long since won in the laws of Spain.

The Iraqi government along with the governments of Turkey, the United States, Syria, and Iran have demanded that the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq step back and cancel its planned “independence referendum” scheduled for 25 September.

After frequent efforts by Iraq and other countries reaching out to ask the Kurdish government to “back off” the referendum, the Kurds flatly said, “No.” Last week Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi attempted to meet with Kurdish leaders to propose negotiations of new arrangements if the KRG would call off the referendum. The Kurds once again said “No.”

On Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2000, Yezidi military seeking to defend their newly proclaimed autonomous Ezidikhan moved into southern Shingal (contested territory by Iraq and the KRG). Last Friday (Sept. 16) Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi said in an interview with Associated Press that the Referendum threatened interventions across international borders (namely Turkey and Iran) should it affirm independence—thus causing Iraqi to militarily intervene into “disputed areas” (Read Kirkuk, and Shingal of Ezidkhan). The Iraqi government began to move troops in that direction on Sept. 19.

All fear that the Kurdish Referendum on Sept. 25 could lead to war between the Southern Kurdish nation and the Iraqi state with possible interventions by Iran, Syria, and Turkey since Kurdish peoples are located in all of these other countries.

The Kurdish Nation has for more than 100 years–since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire—sought to affirm its international identity as a modern state. On Sept. 25, one part of the Kurdish Nation, the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq along the Iranian and Syrian borders will signal its intent to establish the state of Kurdistan as a result of a popular “yes/no” referendum. The fear in neighboring states is that Kurds in those states will also seek independence, breaking off a chunk of southern Turkey, a piece of eastern Syria, and a western piece of Iran; not to mention the rich oil fields (Kirkuk) of Iraq.

A growing number of nations that are claimed by internationally-recognized states want out from under what they consider to be alien control. Each will say that it was incorporated into the state without the consent of each nation. These nations assert that the positive benefits from state control are outweighed by the disadvantages: discrimination, natural resource confiscation, forced assimilation, relocations, government interference, obstacles to economic opportunities and limitations on the powers of self-governance to mention a few disadvantages.

Catalonia (Spain), Kurdistan (Iraq), Palestine (Israel), Biafra (Nigeria), Naga (India), West Papua (Indonesia), Baluchistan (Pakistan), Uyghuristan (PR China) are just five nations seeking to separate from existing states as acts of self-determination in derogation of UN Resolution 637 VII.

Additionally, there is Pashtunistan which is bisected by Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Crimean Tartars who were confiscated by the Russians from the Ukrainians. Then there is the Qom of Argentina who suffer under that government’s constant military, political and economic exploitation… There are many nations that did not consent to be governed by the state that surrounds them and yet the UN with the United States’ encouragement in 1952 pushed to permanently prevent such nations from separating from the unhappy relations with the state that now surrounds them.

This must be changed. The “blue water rule” must be rescinded!

But, I ask whether becoming another state is such a good idea. What about simply recognizing “independent nations” or “confederated nations” that may maintain a treaty relationship with one or more states and other nations? It seems to me that the world needs a better solution to correct historical errors that resulted in artificial state boundaries that hold unwilling nations in bondage as “captives” (so Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia were once referred to when they were under the control of Russia). I will take this topic up in the next MY WORD.

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Dr. Rÿser is the Chairman of the Center for World Indigenous Studies. He served as Senior Advisor to the President George Manuel of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, Advisor and Speechwriter to Quinault President Joe DeLaCruz, a former Acting Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians, and a former staff member of the American Indian Policy Review Commission. He holds a doctorate in international relations, teaches Fourth World Geopolitics through the CWIS Certificate Program ( He is the author of Indigenous Nations and Modern States published by Routledge in 2012; and was joined by Dina-Gilio Whitaker and Heidi Bruce in the publication of Fourth World Theory and Methods of Inquiry in the Handbook of Indigenous Knowledge and Research Methods in Developing Countries by IGI, International in 2016.

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