The Votes Heard Round The World

From Scotland to Crimea, self-determination has attracted much attention as independence movements across the globe have made big leaps towards self-rule. Though these movements, grounded in historical, ethnic and political disputes, have long existed, we have seen a resurgence of late in various regions’ pushes for independence. Recent votes in Catalonia and Kurdistan have captured the world’s attention and are likely to have far-reaching consequences for independence movements worldwide.



Towards the end of the 19th century, nationalist movements began to form in response to vast multi-national empires, such as the Ottoman or the Austro-Hungarian Empires. These empires spanned many different present-day countries and often incorporated multiple ethnic groups. By the end of the First World War, however, it became clear that these empires were falling apart and the question of how to manage the partition of the empires’ former territories emerged.

It was at this point that self-determination as it is articulated today in international law took shape. Though Woodrow Wilson never explicitly made use of the term in his Fourteen Points, the idea that a people should be able to decide its future was one of the main tenets of his grand plan for rebuilding the international system. Lenin also backed the concept, as he indicated support for allowing nations that were part of the Russian Empire to secede. Later on, both the Atlantic Charter and the Charter of the United Nations made mention of self-determination as an integral right of all people. Though the idea was sometimes not put into practice, it quickly became an organizing principle for Western liberalism.



The recent Catalan vote on independence has triggered a constitutional crisis within Spain. Despite overwhelmingly approving the Spanish constitution in 1978, Catalans have long sought independence, citing economic grievances as well as historical and cultural differences with the rest of Spain. Despite enjoying a high degree of autonomy (Catalonia has control over its own government, police force, education system, healthcare system, and other government services), the region has continued to host a thriving pro-independence movement. What had long been a dream for many Catalans became a reality in October, as a binding referendum was held in which, according to the Catalan government, 90% of the votes came in for independence (however, voter turnout was pegged at 43%, as anti-independence voters boycotted the vote). Despite the Spanish government attempting to disrupt the vote by sending in the Guardia Civil (Civil Guard) and declaring the vote illegitimate, the Catalan president Carles Puigdemont claimed victory for the independence movement. A week after the vote, he appeared in front of the Catalan Parliament to declare an independent republic. It must be noted, however, that he immediately suspended independence to allow for talks with Madrid.


The vote has led to a tense standoff between Barcelona and Madrid. Both sides have entrenched themselves in their positions. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has iterated that the Spanish constitution does not allow for binding referendums on secession, and that by extension, the Catalan vote is illegal. Rajoy has now invoked Article 155 of the constitution, suspending the autonomy of Catalonia and would bring the region under direct control of the central government. Such an action would likely only compound the Catalans’ belief that the Spanish government is suppressing Catalan nationalism and is reacting in a heavy-handed manner to a legitimate claim of democratic self-determination.


On the other side, the rhetoric has been clearly pro-independence, as Puigdemont has very visibly proclaimed himself to be committed to achieving an independent Catalan state. It would also be politically risky to renege at this point, as many Catalan lawmakers were voted into office on the promise of independence. The backlash from the vocal pro-independence voters could be very politically damaging. Yet, Puigdemont’s decision to temporarily suspend independence in order to negotiate with Madrid has caused some to think that he is seeking a compromise.



The Iraqi Kurds have also recently participated in a controversial independence referendum. The Kurds, who comprise Iraq’s largest ethnic minority, have a historical claim to their own nation: they were promised an independent state after World War I, but never got it and have been attempting to establish their own country ever since. They also have a strong and distinctive cultural community and comprise around 20% of Iraq’s population.


The Kurds had temporarily postponed their push for independence as they cooperated with Iraqi security forces in the fight against ISIS. After the liberation of Mosul earlier this year, Kurdish leaders reconvened and settled on a date for the long-awaited referendum. Similar to the situation in Catalonia, the Iraqi government and higher courts both declared the vote to be illegal and refused to recognize the legitimacy of the vote. The Kurds nevertheless pushed ahead, with the result coming out at 92% of voters in favor of independence.


The Iraqi government has slowly been suffocating Kurdistan ever since in an effort to get Kurdish officials to back down from acting on these results. All international flights in and out of the region have been cancelled, borders have been closed, and financial activities have been frozen. Iraq’s neighboring countries have also responded in force, as they fear the possibility that independence in Iraq could inspire similar movements from their Kurdish populations. Turkey has threatened to cut off oil imports from the region, which would deprive the Kurds of an important source of revenue. Meanwhile, Iran has shut down its airspace to all flights to and from Iraqi Kurdistan. A broader coalition of Western states has also voiced concerns, citing the need for unity rather than division in the process of rebuilding Iraq in the post-ISIS era.



The Kurdish and Catalan votes have shown the great degree of ambiguity in international law regarding the parameters for a legitimate claim to self-determination. Self-determination is an important right and process to have: it is what allowed African and Asian colonies to break free from Europe’s grasp. Yet, it cannot, and should not, be applied in all cases.


We are currently witnessing a clash between the norms of territorial integrity and of self-determination. In both Catalonia and Kurdistan, this was the fundamental dispute: separatists claim their right to self-determination while states argue that this violates their territorial integrity and their constitutional laws. Thus, there must be clear guidelines on when referendums are allowed. Presently, there seems to be a consensus that cases in which there is a historical record of oppression on the basis ethnic and religious differences strongly qualify for self-rule (as evidenced by African colonies in the 20th century, and more recently, the secession of South Sudan from Sudan).


Yet, the international community as a whole has remained largely ambiguous on the issue. In the United Nations Millennium Declaration, the UN declared support for both territorial integrity and self-determination. In deliberately avoiding taking clear and consistent stances, the international community allows both the central government and separatists to claim legitimacy. This has worsened the situations, as the Spanish and Iraqi governments have used the perceived illegitimacy of the votes as a pretext to crack down on the separatist regions. Both countries have arrested regional officials involved in organizing the votes, claiming that they abetted an illegal referendum. This in turn stokes the claims of oppression from separatist regions, creating a vicious cycle.


Additionally, there are important distinctions to be made between the claims of the two regions to independence. Catalonia’s claim is largely based on issues centered around a sense of community and nationhood, as well as economic disputes (records show that Catalonia pays 10 billion euros more in taxes to the central government than it received in funding). Yet, Catalonia still enjoys prosperity and a relatively large amount of autonomy and respect. Kurds, however, not only have been promised their own state, but also have a history of being brutally repressed by the Iraqi government. Under Saddam Hussein, Kurds were forcibly relocated in order to allow Arabs to settle into the oil-rich areas of Kurdistan. Attempts at achieving independence were also violently shut down, including a poison gas attack in 1988.


To be sure, the Catalans and Kurds lead some of the most developed independence movements in the world. Other groups clamoring for independence lag far behind in the amount of self-governance and recognition that the two already enjoy. Yet, if Catalonia is able to successfully negotiate a divorce from Spain, this may set a precedent in which a wider array of justifications become accepted as legitimate claims to self-rule. Areas such as the Basque Country, Quebec, and Scotland (should independence movements there return to an active role) may find it easier to break away and succeed as successful nations. What is clear is that the recent developments will have a huge impact on the future of self-determination and how independence movements approach their ultimate goal.



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