During the past month, two regions, Kurdistan in Iraq and Catalonia in Spain, held independence referendums questioning the possibility of seceding from their current states and creating their own independent nation-state. Although the referendums resulted in clear support by the region’s inhabitants for the independence of their respective regions, they have so far failed to make any headway towards implementing such an option. Thus a question arises, is there a certain difficulty in today’s world for a region to become independent?
In analyzing the problem of independence and secession in the modern day, a theoretical basis in international law is needed. The general customary law concerning the standard for the sovereignty of a nation was based on four qualifications defined under the Montevideo Convention of 1933. This stated that a region required a permanent population, defined territory, autonomous government, and a capacity to enter into relations with other states. Although a region may meet such standards, proof of sovereignty is not an inherent item but is further solidified through recognition by other nations or groups. Consequently, regions need to meet further standards of recognition, such as joining the UN as a full member or establishing ties with other sovereign nations.
A further issue is that the legal precedents for the basis of secession and independence were not geared towards contemporary political bases for independence, but rather were geared to tackle the circumstances of historical decolonization. This occurred as the themes of exploitation and subjugation that existed in historical colonial empires formed the persuasive reason upon which many nations sought self-determination. However, in the present, many of these historical qualities are lost, as decolonization, having occurred in the past decades, has already re-solidified into a new globalized environment shrouded in both a network of established political frameworks and political interests. As international law seeks to uphold and separate states for the purposes of avoiding and mediating disputes, the emphasis logically falls on upholding a respect for existing sovereign states.
A prominent domestic case example illustrating the application of such issues would be the Quebec Secession Reference in Canada. In the reference, the Supreme Court of Canada stated that Quebec did not meet the standard for sovereignty, as Quebec was afforded an ability through the Canadian Government to seek greater autonomy and self-determination, thus negating any notion of a right to self-determination stemming from any sense of subjugation or exploitation.
In the present day, the case examples of Kurdistan and Catalonia exemplify such issues. Although both regions can be seen as fulfilling the four requirements of sovereignty, their drive for self-determination has had hit severe obstacles in acquiring further “solidification” of self-determination, namely domestic opposition and the lack of foreign support.
In terms of domestic opposition, such examples can be compared to the Quebec Secession Reference. In comparison to the current examples, the case of Quebec is distinctly different, as the framework of constitutionalism and federalism upon which Quebec is connected to the rest of Canada presents a respected legal obstacle that must be challenged domestically before seeking outward recognition. Visually, it can be viewed that although the idea of nationalism in Quebec is not new and certainly pushes for autonomy, Quebec’s integration with the rest of Canada as per the constitution underlines a strong federal framework upon which any inclination of independence must contend with. As the Canadian Constitution allows for the expression of such inclinations, it provides a diplomatic and peaceful space in which such a discussion can occur, although the ability to implement such change is difficult.
Although some aspects of a domestic federal framework may be present in Catalonia and Kurdistan, they are far weaker and inflexible as compared to Canada. Especially as both regions have longstanding traditions of autonomy and hostility with the federal administration, their independence movements thrive off of the fractures in the federal state. As Spain’s constitution does not contain a clause for secession, viewing itself as “unitary, indivisible state” and Iraq likewise has no appetite or space for dissent, the inflexibility of their domestic political regimes leaves no room for any significant discussion concerning independence.
In terms of foreign support, the political implications regarding the independence of such regions makes any sign of recognition a highly risky matter. In terms of Kurdistan, the idea of an independent Kurdish state would be against the interests of neighbouring nations such as Iran, Turkey and Syria, all of whom have sizeable Kurdish populations. In terms of Catalonia, the issue regarding the independence of the region could be damaging to the already troubled European Union and its relation to its member states. Although foreign support and pressure could serve to override the domestic obstacles to independence and secession, the ability for Catalonia and Kurdistan to utilize such support are slim.
The question thus lies at where can such independence movements in the today’s world go? While a people’s right to express their demands for self-sovereignty should nevertheless be respected, the lack of a contemporary norm of self-determination largely makes the establishment of greater autonomy the most viable option. As seen in the contemporary examples of Taiwan and Palestine, both being regions that could generally be regarded as independent nations but for their lack of substantial foreign recognition, there is a general global ambivalence towards issues concerning independence or self-determination. Consequently, in the case of Catalonia and Kurdistan, the most prudent option would be to re-negotiate their autonomous powers. Although disappointingly not reaching the full goal of independence, the wide implications of independence for the two regions, combined with the fierce domestic opposition, make independence a highly risky and potentially violent path.