Thursday, February 25, 2010

Violent Squatters Rights

Were a foreign invading force to enter an area, conquer and displace the indigenous people, and set up a new government there, few would accept this government as legitimate. Even if the invaders now outnumbered the largely exterminated natives, no democracy of, by, and for the invaders would be accepted.

Supposing that a thousand years later the invading force are still there and still hold a majority over the descendants of the indigenous people. The invaders have been living there peacefully for centuries, eventually granting equal rights to the indigenous minorities.

At this point, their democracy is generally accepted as legitimate. For example, it is not common to see people demanding that the descedants of Anglo-Saxon invaders in England be repatriated to Germany, or removed from power. Their long, long domination of England lends them legitimacy. Likewise the Japanese are not expected to vacate their islands for the Ainu, or whoever lived there before them.

I want to know at what point between year 0 (when the invasion began) and year 1,000 does the regime become legitimate?

My inspiration for this comes from the contrast between the near-universal acceptance of the legitimacy of white-dominated democracies in places like the United States and Canada, and the controversy over Protestant-dominated democracy in Northern Ireland. The plantation of Ulster officially began in 1609. The Mayflower took the English Pilgrims to Massachusetts in 1620; the English colonisation of Ulster and America happened roughly around the same time. Now it is unthinkable to expect descendants of Europe, Asia and Africa to surrender their political domination of the US to the descendants of the Native Americans. Yet this kind of thing is sometimes seriously muttered about Protestants in Northern Ireland.

So how long does it take for an invasion to become legitimate?

One generation? The invaders themselves could be seen as criminals, stealing the land and resources of another popultion. Their children, however, have committed no crime. I find it difficult to find children of invaders criminal, simply because they had the bad fortune of being born on the wrong side of a border. Thus it seems unfair to unroot or disenfranchise these children for the crimes of another generation.

There is a problem with this, of course: the children inherit the ill-gotten gains of the invaders. Their wealth and privilege comes at the expense of the victims of their parents. Also it seems perverse that a terrible crime becomes acceptable so long as the criminals manage to hold the property long enough to reproduce.

One partial solution to this injustice comes from the regular welfare state that may look at the country's population and simply see some wealthy people, some poor. The state may tax the wealthy and redistribute to the poor, without ever bothering to look at the ancient injustice that caused the inequality.

By simply refusing to look at the historical conflict, and focusing only on the present-day problems, perhaps this could render the injustice something of a non-issue. It does leave all the practical and moral issues associated with welfare states, however, and it leaves the descendants of the invaders with legitimate domination of the land.

Another solution, of sorts, is just some kind of negotiated settlement, perhaps like the Land Acts in 19th century Ireland that gradually shifted ownership from the descendants of the English colonists to the descendants of the native Irish. This, clumsy and unjust as it is, still seems better than the more recent seizure and redistribution of land from white farmers in Zimbabwe.

The whole area is messy, however. Feel free to add your own thoughts in comments below.


  1. I really like this angle, but I don't think you need to worry about the ill-gotten gains of the invading peoples' descendants. The enterprise the descendants of the invaders would have inevitably engaged in with the indigenous people since the time of the invasion would very naturally re-distribute that wealth quite quickly. It is unlikely that, if your family had some wealth in 1609, you would have comparable wealth in 2010 anyway; and if you did you would certainly attribute the credit for your current circumstances to your more immediate relatives who sustained that wealth through good business-sense than to your invading ancestors four centuries ago.

  2. 'at what point between year 0 (when the invasion began) and year 1,000 does the regime become legitimate?'

    I don't know but I am pulling at a thread of a thought here:

    - northern ireland in the 1970s, catholics were second class citezens and the modern IRA sprung from a civil rights movement. This got mixed up with 'brits out' sentiments, but the real goal was equality. Hence now NI is still british but powersharing has resulted in peace.

    - The white government in south africa used religious interpretation as an excuse to legitimse apartheid laws. True peace and equlity has yet to be achieved, it is a work in progress. (But what about the San people? they are the real natives and yet they are largely ignored....)

    - as far as I know, the native americans have been treated as equal in america for most of the last 100 years or so. There has been some bigotry and poverty for some, but they were at least equal in the eyes of the law and many native americans, eastern tribes in particular, have fully integrated into the wider society.

    So it seems to me that native americans have been equal citizens in north america for as long as current living memory, whereas in NI and SA some people have been second class citizens within living memory. So maybe the answer to the question is the natives being treated as 1st class citezens for living memory.

    But the real answer, if there is one common answer to all such situations,is probably more complicated than that. K.

  3. Good point Adam - and I certainly agree that's true when a long period of time has passed.

    But what about shorter term, as I mentioned, one generation after the invasion. The children here are literally inheriting all the resources stolen by their parents. But the children themselves aren't guilty of any crime!

    I wonder where the law stands on this in terms of, say, stolen goods? Thanks for the comment, man, by all means spread the word about this blog!


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