by Max Fisher & Amanda Taub, ‘The New York Times,’ September 29, 2017
When does an independence movement get to form its own nation? For decades, a set of unstated but well-known rules has supposedly decided that.
But those rules include a number of contradictions. And as the Catalans in Spain and the Kurds in Iraq push for independence through referendum, those contradictions are becoming uncomfortably clear.
The first rule: Portray your cause as a struggle for democracy and human rights first, national self-determination second. This helps get around the fact that there is no legal right, under international or often domestic law, for secession.
Also, get the great powers, or at least the United States, to compel, coerce or bribe the government you’re trying to break from into going along. If the breakup isn’t mutual, it’s almost impossible to peacefully resolve, so better to pretend everyone wants it.
Ideally, seek independence from a ruler who is unelected and friendless. And hire lobbyists to persuade world leaders that your bid will promote their interests and values, presenting it as an easy choice.
And make sure no one asks whether citizens from the rest of the country might want to keep their borders intact, which would reveal that any referendum excludes many of the people affected by the result.
For all the high-minded window dressing that often attaches to secession rules, in the end, they “have more to do with what the powerful want,” said Bridget L. Coggins, a political scientist who studies secession.
Catalans, for instance, have built their movement around the high-minded ideals that supposedly guide secession. They have organized without violence, called for an open vote and presented themselves as pursuing the supposedly universal right to self-determination.
Ms. Coggins called it “a beautiful, peaceful movement” but “utterly befuddling from an international relations perspective.”
The Catalans have little international support and face heavy opposition, as do Iraq’s Kurds, setting both on a collision course with world powers and the painful contradictions of secession politics.
And they come at a time when American leadership, increasingly withdrawn, is unavailable to resolve or at least gloss over those contradictions.
The Secession Contradiction
The modern international system is built, in part, on two ideas that turned out to be in tension: Borders are sacrosanct and people determine their own political status.
The former was meant to put an end to war by discouraging invasion or separatist rebellion. The latter was meant to protect citizens from dictators or occupiers. But when a subset of a population decides to break off, those two principles collide.
This has opened a vacuum in the international system when it comes to declaring independence. Neither norms nor the law are particularly clear on how or when it’s permissible.
“As it is generally understood, there is no right to secede under international law,” Chris Borgen, a law professor, wrote in 2014 for Opinio Juris, a legal scholarship site. He added, “Secession is neither a right nor necessarily illegal.”
In practice, great power politics fill the vacuum, determining when a state’s right to uphold its borders does or does not trump a group’s desire to break away.
South Sudan’s independence referendum, for instance, grew out of the internationally brokered peace agreement that ended Sudan’s long-running civil war. That meant it had built-in international legitimacy and the government of Sudan had effectively already consented to a break of some kind.
Spain has not consented to the Catalans’ independence, nor Iraq to the Kurds’. Without such consent, situations become far more volatile.
Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia had the support of the United States and its European allies, but was bitterly opposed by the Serbian and Russian governments. Today, although recognized by over 100 countries, Kosovo still has not been admitted to the United Nations.
Because the supposedly sacrosanct principles of self-determination, democracy and sovereignty will clash somewhat in nearly every case, powers almost always have a way to justify their position.
Russia justified its invasion of Crimea by saying it served Crimeans’ supposed desire to rejoin Russia, enshrined in a deeply flawed referendum.
The United States, by objecting to the nature of the vote, was able to dodge the more difficult question of whether Crimeans might in fact really have desired to become part of Russia.
In legal terms, Russia was in the wrong, Mr. Borgen and many other scholars have found. But Moscow’s annexation, like its support for separatist movements across Europe, exploits the gap between how secession formally works and how it is often seen as working.
Catalans may have themselves fallen in that gap, believing their desire for democratic self-determination would carry the day. Western powers, after decades of promoting that ideal as the basis of secession, including in backing Kosovo’s independence, have struggled for a way to dissuade Catalans.
‘The Secessionists’ Dilemma’
Kurdish leaders are well aware that realpolitik, not ideals, will determine the success of their independence bid, said Morgan L. Kaplan, a political scientist who studies the Kurdish independence movement.
From the Kurdish perspective, the referendum “was supposed to be the first step in a negotiation process with Baghdad,” he said. The idea was that appealing to international norms could sway the United States and other foreign powers to support independence. And that, in turn, could help pressure Baghdad to consent to secession.
But the vote has instead galvanized Washington and Baghdad in opposition, illustrating what the scholars Erica Chenoweth and Tanisha M. Fazal have called “the secessionists’ dilemma” — that the unstated rules for secession often fail or even backfire.
“Secessionists don’t tend to get rewarded for doing what the international community says” they should do, Ms. Fazal wrote on Twitter.
“At some point,” she added of Kurds’ decision to proceed anyway, breaking those rules, “secessionists will catch on. I wonder if the Iraqi Kurds have reached that point.”