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One man’s self-determination is another man’s secession

Until last week, when the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Catalonia in Spain held referendums on their political future, the two regions had little in common. But now the proximity of these political polls, in defiance of the countries they are part of and the international community as a whole, might tie the two together as catalysts of a new wave of separatist and secessionist movements. There is a long list of such movements around the world, some with more political clout than others.
More than 90 percent in each referendum supported Kurdish and Catalan independence. While the Kurdish leadership took a more cautious approach to the Iraq result, and called for a dialogue with the government in Baghdad about a peaceful secession from Iraq, the Catalan leadership was much bolder in stating that a declaration of independence was just a matter of days away. As could be expected, the Iraqi and Spanish governments have rejected out of hand any suggestion of entering negotiations on either Kurdish or Catalan independence. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi declared that in order for the Iraqi government to enter into serious dialogue with the Kurdish government of Masoud Barzani, the results of what he called “the unconstitutional referendum” would have to be discounted; and even then, the negotiations could only be on strengthening the integrity of Iraq. The response from Madrid was as forceful, if not more so. King Felipe of Spain did not mince his words. In a nationwide address, he launched a blistering attack on Catalonia’s pro-independence regional government, accusing it of “breaking democratic principles” and of systematically undermining “the rules approved legally and legitimately, showing an unacceptable disloyalty toward the powers of the state.”
This raises the question of whether any group of people who have a strong sense of affinity with distinctive features — such as a common ethnicity, religion, history or language — has the right to self-determination. On the other hand, does the state, or the international community, have a legitimate right to prevent separatist movements from exercising this right, and on what grounds? In his seminal Fourteen Points speech toward the end of the First World War, US President Woodrow Wilson established the notion of self-determination as one of the cornerstones of the modern international system. It remains an unresolved issue at which point in history the split into smaller units of national political entities is expected to come to an end, and who will decide this. Which claims for self-determination are more legitimate than others, and what universal criteria, if there are any, should be applied for aspiring nations to become independent?
Demands for self-determination have clashed with the long process of state and nation-building in different parts of the world as history has witnessed it in the past two centuries, and also with the more recent notion of globalization. Historically speaking, the existence and proliferation of the nation state is relatively new. The unification of countries such as Italy and Germany took place in the middle or second half of the 19th century. Most other states came into being much later, and in many cases are post-colonial constructs. It is therefore inevitable that the opposing trends of creating larger political units, such as the EU, and the quest for self-determination by other, smaller units, will prevail in international politics, sometimes complementing each other, and sometimes clashing. The very people of the Scottish National Party or the Flemish movement in Belgium who call for independence would also like to stay part of the EU. They do so despite the stipulations that derive from such membership in a supranational organization, including a restricted space for exercising full sovereignty.

Independence votes by Iraqi Kurds and Catalans show that countries must learn how to allow political, economic and cultural autonomy without compromising national integrity.

Yossi Mekelberg

The responses from Prime Minister Abadi and King Felipe epitomize a wider view that secession means disloyalty and a threat to the integrity of one’s country, and is therefore illegitimate and should be rejected. But condemning the Kurdish Regional Government or the Catalan regional government for threatening stability and prosperity cannot and will not alter strong nationalist sentiments. Regardless of whether one thinks these sentiments are rational or desirable, they are still widespread, and so are bound to result in political action, either peaceful or through armed struggle, aimed at translating such ambitions into political reality. Globalization enhanced the illusion that individuals and national collectives were abandoning parochial nationalist ideas in exchange for becoming citizens of the world. One massive economic crisis and relatively limited waves of immigration have punctured a big hole in this dream, and the reaction has been tribal rather than global.
The international ramifications of the Kurdish and Catalan independence referendums are almost as important as the domestic ones. In the case of the Kurdish claim, if legitimized and materialized, it gives equal strength to the demands for self-determination of Kurds in Turkey, Iran and Syria. If Catalonia’s independence becomes a reality, why not the Basques in Spain and in France? The prospect of such a snowball effect may instill a genuine fear that making one concession to a separatist movement is bound to lead to similar demands that might bring an end to the nation-state system as we know it.
Yet it can also serve as a warning sign for countries neglecting to address satisfactorily, or recognize sufficiently, the rights of national groups within their countries to exercise a sufficiently wide range of political, economic and cultural autonomy without compromising the integrity of the country as whole. This is a mighty challenge that many countries are going to have to face in the foreseeable future, if they want to curtail separatist movements.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg