“If I have a problem with my wife, I send flowers ,” Josep Borrell [1]

Josep Borrell, Socialist former President of the European Parliament, who describes himself as “Catalan, Spanish and European,” is actually opposed to the Catalan referendum on independence, but he is at least clear eyed enough to see that the use of force by the Spanish state is not a smart move. It is almost comical to see Spanish unionists doing all within their power to alienate those they profess to want to keep in their union.

And it is not only in Spain that unionists are desperate to avoid people being allowed to vote peacefully on their future. There is something strangely paradoxical about people who believe so fervently in a union being unwilling to trust making the case for it. Of course some of the most passionate unionists are not very solid democrats, but even those who are tend to fall back on repeated assertions about “not being allowed.”

Events in Catalonia and in Kurdistan have provoked the usual suspects to squawk about stability. Access to the pompous retired statesman gravy train is often contingent on defence of the status quo. But like in the Emperor with no clothes, it is about time that we woke up to the fact that these self-proclaimed realists are not very realistic.

Any rational analysis of the last century of history would conclude that it is not generally self-determination which provokes instability, but rather attempts to use force to deny it. The Czech-Slovak velvet divorce and the peaceful re-emergence of the Baltic states are a better road-map than the failed and bloody struggle to keep Yugoslavia together. The key that unlocked the Good Friday Agreement was the principle of consent based on the right to choose, and as Fintan O’Toole wrote so eloquently [2] recently that included the right to choose both. To be fair David Cameron seemed to understand this with the Edinburgh Agreement [3] , even if the subsequent Project Fear somewhat tarnished that legacy.

There are no doubt tricky issues to be resolved if Kurdistan is to pursue the path to independence. As was the case with the post-Soviet states the key issues for international acceptance should be respect for human rights (particularly the rights of minorities), democracy and the rule of law. There will be issues around the inclusion of disputed territory. Funnily enough the solution the international community will almost certainly choose should they engage with that problem will be self-determination, i.e. ensuring that the people of those territories can choose freely. Anyone who thinks threats and the use of force is a recipe for stability has not been paying attention.

Self-determination is in the end not only about utility, but about respect for basic human rights principles and it is for this reason that it is enshrined in the UN Charter [4]. And not only with regard to colonies as erroneously tweeted by Labour’s Paul Sweeney MP [5]. Self determination is a key principle underpinning the Charter and is included in Article 1, clause 2 :

“To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted in 1966 enshrine this as part of international human rights law through identical article 1’s stating, “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”[7]

In more recent times we have seen these principles applied in the context of both East Timor and Kosovo.

Divorce metaphors are somewhat over-done when it comes to self-determination, but some of the threats made to the Kurds and the Catalans put one in mind of Chechnya’s brutal ruler Ramzan Kadyrov ordering divorced couples back together. [8]

Better to try flowers, and if that does not work, let the people choose.


1) http://www.politico.eu/article/catalonia-referendum-independence-josep-borrell-warns-of-domino-effect/
2) http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/09/28/brexits-irish-question/
3) http://www.gov.scot/About/Government/concordats/Referendum-on-independence
4) http://opil.ouplaw.com/view/10.1093/law:epil/9780199231690/law-9780199231690-e873
5) https://twitter.com/PaulJSweeney/status/910947656830156800
6) http://www.un.org/en/sections/un-charter/un-charter-full-text/
7) http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CCPR.aspx
8) https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/chechnya-divorced-couples-ramzan-kadyrov-order-get-back-together-extremism-chechen-a7909756.html



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