Opinion: Catalonia, Kurdistan and the legitimacy of independence

A Catalan independence supporter waves the unofficial independence movement flag
A supporter of Catalan independence waves the “Estelada,” an unofficial flag and symbol of support for the secession movement, at a rally in Barcelona (source: dpa)

On October 1, Catalonia will hold a referendum on independence from Spain. The Spanish constitution guarantees the integrity of the country’s territory and therefore does not allow for such a vote. Nevertheless, the regional government and parliament of Catalonia have decided to go ahead with the referendum anyway. The central government in Madrid has declared the vote illegal.

Whatever governance system they have, states and their governments finally receive their legitimacy from the consent of their people. It is therefore unwise to force a region to remain within a state if a considerable majority wants to leave.

In Catalonia’s case, it is probable that a majority, even if small, wants the region to remain in Spain. However, Madrid’s stance against the referendum will likely cause many of those who oppose independence to abstain. As a result, the separatists might end up with a majority. That would be a nightmare for Spain and the European Union, which would deny Catalonia its independence after the region had voted for it.

It is better that parts of a country split off than be forced to remain and become resentful

In any case, banning a vote on self-determination – even if it is viewed negatively – is detrimental. In the case of Catalonia, Madrid has made an especially unwise move for the reasons mentioned above. It is better that parts of a country split off than be forced to remain and become resentful.

‘International legitimacy’

Very much to the dismay of the United States, Turkey and the international community in general, the Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq intends to hold a referendum on independence on September 25.

“Heading into [the] referendum … there is no prospect for international legitimacy,” U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Brett McGurk told reporters on September 14 after a delegation, also including the U.N. and Britain, met Kurdish President Massoud Barzani.

Supporters of independence for the Kurdistan Autonomous Region in Iraq wave flags at a rally in Erbil, northern Iraq
Pro-independence supporters wave Kurdistan flags at a rally in Erbil, Iraq. The country’s Kurdistan Region will hold an independence referendum on September 25, 2017 (source: dpa)

It might be that the timing of the referendum seems inopportune. But Iraq is an artificial construct, created – like Syria – in a division of British and French interests in dismantling the Ottoman Empire. The state is unsustainable. In this light, Mr. McGurk’s use of the term “international legitimacy” is irritating. If we believe that a state receives its legitimacy from the people who live there, then using “international legitimacy” in this way is intrusive and contradicts the right of self-determination.

Self-determination is a fundamental right. It is included in the charter of the United Nations. Unfortunately, it remains mainly a right only on paper, especially at the UN. The atrocities committed by UN troops in 1963 as they crushed the independence movement in Katanga, in what was then the Republic of the Congo, were appalling. The failure to recognize the region of Biafra’s independence from Nigeria resulted in mass starvation. Even now, the Nigerian government continues to oppress the Igbos, Biafra’s native population. The role of the international community, which wanted to preserve the state of Yugoslavia, and the indifference of the UN contingents in Croatia and Bosnia led to bloodshed during the necessary disintegration of Yugoslavia (1991-1996). Yugoslavia was another artificial state created at the end of World War I – Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, Bosniaks, Albanians and others were forced into a single state dominated by the Serbs.

It is shocking that the so-called “international community” still arrogantly claims a right to declare a state’s legitimacy

Allowing these peoples to declare independence would have prevented the mass murder of millions. It is shocking that the so-called “international community” refuses to realize this and still arrogantly claims a right to declare a state’s legitimacy.

The present discussion on whether Crimea “belongs” to Russia or Ukraine is also relevant. Russia took over Crimea from the Tartars in the 18th century. In 1954, the peninsula was administratively transferred from the Russian Soviet Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic (and therefore remained within the Soviet Union). Now, international negotiations, threats of military force and the actual use of military force are being employed to influence the region’s aspirations. In an excellent report, GIS expert Dr. Svyatoslav Kaspe described the futility of these activities and concluded that the starting point for any process will have to be an acknowledgment that Crimea is a freehold of the Crimeans – and nobody else.

A successful separation occurred in the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. On January 1, 1993, in mutual agreement, the country split into two sovereign states: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. This separation spared the two peoples, and the EU, potential future problems.

Liechtenstein model

Prince Regnant of Liechtenstein Hans-Adam II, concerned by the inflexibility of many nation-states, founded the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination at Princeton University. Moreover, as part of a reform of the Liechtenstein constitution, he also proposed a system that would allow municipalities to secede via municipal referenda. The changes were accepted by a huge majority of the country’s citizens.

The possibility for regions to leave a state should not be considered a threat, but rather an opportunity

Prince Hans-Adam considers the state a provider of services to the citizen. However, the nation-state usually has a monopoly on the services it provides. To counteract the adverse consequences of such a situation, he wanted to allow citizens to choose other “service providers,” such as a neighboring state.

It is highly unlikely that any part of Liechtenstein would want to secede. However, the notion of voluntary unity binds the population together and inspires pride. It also further enhances the strong mutual loyalty between the prince and the population

The possibility for regions to leave a state should not be considered a threat, but rather an opportunity. It forces central governments to implement efficient policies. Allowing secession is a strong corrective force, while a proud, voluntary unity inspires active citizenship among a country’s people far more than one that is forced upon them.

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