Did Kosovo open up Pandora’s Box?

If the international community intends to keep the floodgates to secessionist movements closed, it w

In February 2008, Kosovo’s parliament unilaterally declared itself independent from Serbia. Tens of thousands crowded the streets of Pristina against a backdrop of fireworks and firecrackers.

These celebrations were not repeated in the Kremlin. Even as Western states moved to support Kosovo, Russia's President Vladimir Putin branded the declaration “immoral and illegal”.

Then war erupted in the Caucasus and two tiny Georgian enclaves, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, were recognised as independent by Russia and Nicaragua. It was the West's turn to fume.

Some commentators have been quick to conclude a new Cold War is inevitable. Elsewhere there has been growing alarm that the fireworks in Kosovo - and now the Caucasus - will lead to new waves of unilateral declarations of independence and self-determination.

The panic is ill-founded for a number of reasons. For one thing, secessionism is not new. Since 1990, almost 30 new states have been created, mostly following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia.

Indeed, since 1945, the United Nations has grown from 51 members to 192 today as independence movements took on life even as colonial empires disintegrated. Naturally, state boundaries change as geopolitics and power balances evolve.

For a secessionist movement to be recognised by other states is quite different to it be represented in diplomatic relations and become an active player in international processes. Taiwan, enjoying diplomatic relations with 23 states, cannot be said to be an active party in the international community until it gains representation at the United Nations and in its agencies. Until Kosovo, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia gain this representation, they remain in state limbo.

Thirdly, Kosovo, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia are very different from the majority of secessionist territories in the world. Kosovo was under UN authority for nearly a decade prior to its independence, the statement of which emphasised that Kosovo was a “special case” after the volatile breakup of Yugoslavia. Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia have operated as functional de facto governments since the early 1990s, with a stable, independent government structure and a functional judiciary.

And indeed, secessionism is little more than a blanket term for a diverse grouping of political movements around the world. The Kurds, with 30 million dispersed across Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, hardly face the same challenges as the South Ossetians, numbering 70,000. Secessionist movements in South Tyrol, Flanders, and Scotland may all operate within large, western European, well-established political administrations, but their histories and political situations stand in stark contrast to one another.

Even within states, secessionist movements can differ enormously. Indonesia has seen two very different major movements – East Timour was granted independence in 1999 whilst separatist calls in Aceh have been largely muted as the region enjoys increasing internal autonomy. The election of the Kuomintang Party in Taiwan has seen a political cross-Strait truce since March 2008, whilst pre-Olympic crackdowns in Western China saw demonstrations and increasing support for autonomy amongst Tibetan and Uyghur groups.

It is far too early to say what effect the international recognition of Kosovo, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia will be on these movements. Indeed, it is too early to predict whether these de facto states will be represented in international forums in the near future, or whether they will remain in de facto limbo.

But for all that can be said about the differences amongst secessionist movements, one important issue is shared by most. The bulk of Abkhaz grievances, for example, stemmed from the fact that despite being a nearly two decade-old de facto government, it has been cast in political and economic isolation.

Unrepresented internationally and with no diplomatic relations to speak of, the Abkhaz government counted on Russia as their only supporter, who happily granted Russian passports to their citizens.

This happened whilst the international community was put to a stalemate, paralysed by fanfares of respect for the territorial integrity of Georgia, and failed to even attempt addressing Abkhaz calls for recognition. It is in this stalemate that Abkhazia found itself in complete diplomatic seclusion. For over a decade, Abkhaz authorities spoke of the deprivation of its peoples’ rights in their exclusion from international human rights treaties and debates.

The international community should consider this carefully. Self-determination movements around the world call for autonomy because they are isolated from decision-making processes. States must find a way to actively engage these unrepresented groups without violating the territorial integrity of the state which they are in.

In the case of Abkhazia, avoiding isolation could have been as simple as an invitation to accede to the Mine Ban Treaty 1997. After decades of skirmishes, Georgia and Abkhazia are amongst the most mine-affected communities in the world. The Abkhaz government has openly expressed readiness to address landmine issues, but cannot sign the Mine Ban Treaty as it is not an internationally recognized state. A simple invitation to participate in or attend any of the annual meetings of Mine Ban Treaty signatories may have sufficed in lulling Abkhazia out of isolation and into the international community, and undermined Russia’s appeal as Abkhazia’s sole ally.

The lesson here is important. Not only did the international community’s decade-old failure to engage Abkhazia in mine ban dialogue likely result in grave humanitarian consequences from continued mine use, it injected Abkhazians with a growing sense of indignant isolation and anger. The lesson should be widely applied to secessionist movements across the world. From Kurdistan, with 30 million unrepresented and isolated peoples, to Taiwan, with a distinct political system and history to China, states around the world must recognize the need to address the right of self-determination without relinquishing to territorial integrity as a trump card above all other consideration. The choice has little to do with territorial integrity; it is between isolation and engagement.

All in all, did Kosovo open a Pandora’s Box of unilateral declarations of independence? All things considered, no. However, if the international community intends to keep the floodgates of secessionist movements closed, it would do well to learn from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The international community must move away from black-and-white conceptions of statehood – the choice is not between independence and territorial integrity. Dare we say, the choice should be to think a little outside the box.

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.

***

Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”


Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone.”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.