Independence referendums are always an exciting occurrence for political scientists, more so when there are two within the same week. Recently, on September 25th, Kurds in Iraq voted for independence to form Kurdistan, a region that encompasses parts of northern Iraq, northern Syria, southeastern Turkey, and northwestern Iran, while Catalans, members of the autonomous region of Catalonia in northeastern Spain, voted in favor of independence on October 1st. While neither has yet formally declared independence from their respective governments, both are expected to. Kurdistan and Catalonia, however, face enormous international pressure in the face of their secessionist movements.
As colonialism and imperialism became more popular beginning in the sixteenth century, the dominance of the social contract theory in political thought was challenged; it became ever more associated in the United States and Western Europe with democracy and individual rights, while many in Eastern Europe and the rest of the world challenged the basis of the social contract and property-based rights, which is that the contract that individuals “enter” into with governments is inherently fair. However, self-determination was ever present in the debate about correct government. President Woodrow Wilson included the concept in his “Fourteen Points” speech near the end of the first World War. Vladimir Lenin, the first leader of the Soviet Union, claimed the right of self-determination be a cornerstone of Marxist-Leninist thought.
The concept of self-determination still dominates contemporary thought. The United Nations drafted a resolution on 24 October 1995 for the organization’s fiftieth anniversary that reaffirms the right of self-determination for colonial nations and states under “alien domination or foreign occupation,” but also claims that this does not apply to “the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent States conducting themselves in compliance with the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.” This interpretation gives a much stricter account of how far self-determination is allowed to go, as a nation of people could not, for example, declare independence in a state that is in conformity with international law as arbitrated by the UN.
However, it is also important to note that the UN has no official power over other states and serves as more of a negotiating table than a sovereign world government. For example, during the U.S.–Iraq War in the early 2000’s, President George W. Bush defied the will of the UN and invaded Iraq with a coalition of allies. Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, subsequently declared the action “illegal” and not in conformity with the UN charter. Consequently, due the UN’s lack of sovereign power, no direct and punitive action could be taken towards the U.S. for breaching the charter—probably both because of the U.S.’ integral role in the UN and the unwillingness of any state to level charges against it.
These two votes are not the only recent independence referendums. Scotland held an historic independence vote in 2014 and decided to stay in the United Kingdom. Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, had hoped that a second referendum would be held after the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, but dropped the idea after disappointing results in the Summer 2017 elections for her party, the Scottish National Party. Sturgeon now says she would like to make sure Scotland is well-represented in the ‘Brexit’ talks between Westminster and Brussels, possibly implying future plans for another referendum.
One could even mention the rise of the Islamic State as an interesting, if controversial, case of self-determination. Few would claim that those in IS were oppressed by their governments, therefore giving them rights to secede, so the UN resolution would fail to give IS legitimacy solely on the circumstances of the group’s formation. However, this does not seem immediately convincing. Many people voluntarily chose to travel and live under the rule of IS and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph of IS, giving the regime internal legitimacy. At the same time, a significant proportion of people also despised living under the caliphate. IS controlled a large amount of physical land when it was at its height; however the rate at which the land has been won back has confined them to areas near the Syrian-Iraq border. Furthermore, many objected to calling IS a proper ‘state’ to keep from legitimizing what was seen as a glorified terrorist organization. IS’ rise still serves as an interesting case study for the concept of self-determination and legitimate rule of governments.
Going forward, the situation for the Kurds is muddled. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, has previously supported the Kurds’ right to self-determination but currently seems to oppose it. There was previously a thought that President Donald Trump would advocate for an independent Kurdistan after he armed them to fight IS, but has been quiet about the issue since the referendum and previously even implied that the referendum should have been held off until IS is defeated.
Catalans are not much better off than the Kurds. The Spanish government has classified the referendum as unconstitutional—the country’s 1978 constitution makes no proviso for independence votes, a point which Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has repeatedly used to denounce the referendum—and plans to contest any plans of secession from the Catalan government.
There does not seem to be a clear-cut conclusion for either group of people; on a national level, Iraq is refusing to deal with the Kurds at the present time and Spain claims the Catalan referendum is plainly unconstitutional. On an international level, there is no real consensus that stems from law and precedent; the UN says that groups of people can only secede under special circumstances, which neither the Kurds nor Catalans seem to be subject to. However, these laws are based only on norms and precedent, and both are obsolete once new attitudes and behaviors replace old ones.
Regarding the Kurds, al-Abadi previously gave his support to them before, which is either a promise he should keep or a mistake he should have fixed long ago. Either way, the Kurds have picked an inopportune time to hold this referendum. IS may be on its way out, but it is still not defeated and terrorism thrives on instability in the Middle East. Perhaps Kurdistan should be an independent country; it would allow the Kurds to hold even more personal responsibility over policing and managing their land, serving as a strong deterrent to terrorists and wiping off one more potential safe zone for them. However, the time for that is not now. As painful as it may be, the Kurds must look at the greater threat of terrorist insurgencies. IS’ threat was so vast because of how effective they were in taking advantage of power vacuums and using fear to conquer land. Creating a set of circumstances that could allow this to happen again would be disastrous. For the time being, the Kurds must accept that independence is not coming. Once Iraq and Syria are back under control, though, al-Abadi would do well to re-extend the right of self-determination to his citizens.
Catalonia, under international law and the Spanish constitution, has no real claim—or even ability—to righteously declare independence. Spain follows UN parameters for a ‘free society’ about as well as any other western country. Plainly put, it is against the law. However, a law has no independent moral value, and citing a constitutional proviso (or the lack of one) is not a reliable metric for right and wrong. No matter how misguided Catalans might be, denying them a true democratic process cannot and will not mend relations between them and Madrid. Catalans should not secede; the process of re-entering the EU, re-joining NATO, and re-writing treaties with other countries would take years, if not decades. Furthermore, the havoc that Catalonia’s independence could wreck on Spain would be a tragedy. Denying them the right to choose their own path, though, is not a good response. If Catalans feel as if they are not being treated with the respect and autonomous control they deserve, then Spain should react intelligently. One possible move would be to call into question whether they really are treated as badly as they claim, but given that any chance of calm discussions has passed, this does not seem smart. Granting Catalonia greater control over itself could serve as an effective pacifier for the time being to keep the country whole. Only then will cooler heads prevail.