It’s Time for a Global Standard on Self-Determination
By: Cameron Hall
The idea of peoples’ right to self-determination has long been a global golden standard. American President Woodrow Wilson was an early advocate for this idea at the Treaty of Versailles talks following World War I, although his notion of self-determination largely only applied to Europeans. Several decades later, in its Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, the United Nations (UN) proclaimed that “all peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” This stance accompanied global decolonization in the 1960s and 1970s, in which new countries were formed across the world as European colonialism came to an end.
More recently, however, the international community’s stance on self-determination has been murky at best and outright contradictory at worst. Countries wishing to secede from international pariah states, such as Kosovo from Serbia and South Sudan from Sudan, have largely been permitted to do so under the guise of self-determination. However, groups clamoring for independence in countries in better standing with the international community have largely been ignored. Recently, this double-standard has created tricky situations in two would-be countries: Catalonia and Kurdistan. In light of these crises, it is time that the international community developed a coherent stance on self-determination and established a mechanism for groups to pursue independence without their quest escalating into violence.
In the fall of 2017, two high-profile independence referenda occurred. First, about 92 percent of voters in the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq voted in favor of independence. Despite objections from Baghdad, the vote went forward in the formal Kurdish region, as well as in other Kurdish-controlled areas of the country occupied during the fight against the Islamic State (IS). Six days later, in Catalonia, an autonomous community of Spain, the Spanish government did everything in their power to stop a referendum from occurring. Despite attempts to confiscate ballots and declarations of the referendum’s illegality, 43 percent of Catalans voted, with 90 percent of these people backing independence.
Neither of these potential states has received much international backing. Israel has been the only regional country to support Kurdish independence, while the Catalans have yet to find a single ally in their quest for an independent Catalonia. Both cases also run the risk of escalating into violence, with Iraq’s Vice President warning of a civil war over the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk and Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy threatening to revoke Catalonia’s autonomy if the region attempts to break from Spain.
The international community’s response to these incidents has been one of remarkable hypocrisy, especially given that nearly every modern state achieved independence from another at some point in its history. Catalonia and Kurdistan both have legitimate claims to independence, as did those aforementioned states when they fought for independence. Both the Catalans and the Kurds have their own distinct culture and traditions, and both have a long history of exploitation by Spain and Iraq, respectively. In Iraq, especially, the degree to which the international community has bent over backwards to keep the country unified following the U.S. invasion in 2003, a civil war in 2006 and the rise of IS in 2013 is nothing short of astonishing.
Meanwhile, both of the world’s two newest states came about in cases where the right to self-determination was upheld. In 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia and was recognized by much of the world. Three years later in 2011, South Sudan split from Sudan, gaining even more international recognition and membership in the UN. However, these declarations of independence were largely supported because of the world’s dislike for both Serbia and Sudan. Serbia, seen as the principle successor to a Yugoslavia that orchestrated genocide in the 1990s, found little sympathy abroad for years afterwards. Sudan was even more despised, with a reputation as a state sponsor of terrorism that had previously given refuge to Osama bin Laden. The international community’s reactions to these two cases constitutes further hypocrisy, as they have essentially reserved self-determination for separatists in pariah states
Catalonia and Kurdistan may be the most pressing cases in regard to the question of self-determination, but myriad others exist. In Africa, separatist movements in western Cameroon and in southeastern Nigeria have been gathering steam. Calls for the independence in the Chinese territories of Tibet and Hong Kong have long been salient in global consciousness. In Europe, separatism is becoming an epidemic, with high-profile secessionist movements active in Scotland, Flanders, the Basque Country, Corsica and South Tyrol just to name a few. The three southernmost states in Brazil have even begun pushing for independence in recent weeks. The international community cannot continue to simply ignore all of these movements; a plan of action for dealing with them is needed.
The international community, most likely through the UN, must establish a standard procedure for states wishing to become independent. While it would be ideal for countries to adapt this standard into their own laws, an admittedly unrealistic proposition, an international standard on secession would still have a positive impact on the world order and its constituent countries.
Given that most of the world’s borders were arbitrarily forged through conquest or were imposed by foreign powers, the world must recognize that these borders are not set in stone and should be open to further adjustment. One of the most fundamental principles of democracy is the freedom to choose, and if the world is committed to a democratic order (which, in a world order dominated by the United States, it is), it should apply this notion to the concept of statehood. There is nothing malicious about a group of people wanting control over their own destiny. After all, the United States justified its declaration of independence from the United Kingdom in 1776 on these very grounds, a fact which is celebrated every July 4.
By establishing a standard framework for secession, the international community will reduce the risk of violence arising from questions of statehood. Differences between Spain and Catalonia or Iraq and Kurdistan will be able to be handled amicably, ensuring that the grievances of both sides are addressed. In fact, with the right to self-determination firmly established in the international order, many separatist movements would likely lose steam, as governments would be forced to actually negotiate with separatist groups and address their concerns in the interest of keeping their countries unified. Thus, paradoxically, a framework for secession would in many places serve national unity. Furthermore, countries with dubious international legal status, such as Kosovo or Taiwan, would finally have their status settled. A standard process for secession would enshrine the right of these countries to exist and allow them to once and for all assert their right to sovereignty.
While a standard framework for self-determination would be certainly be limited by pragmatic constraints, like the fact that China will probably never relinquish control of Tibet willingly, it would be a step in the right direction, particularly in democratic countries where the rule of law holds more sway. With such a standard in place, the international community would not be left scratching its head every time a region like Kurdistan or Catalonia pushes for independence. Only then, will self-determination truly be a right enjoyed by all people, as the UN claims it should be.