On Sunday 1st October, the regional government of Catalonia organised a referendum on independence from Spain. This was a culmination of a long process in which the “Comunidad Autónoma” led by nationalist parties came into confrontation with the national government in Madrid. The vote itself had been declared unconstitutional by the courts, but the leader of Catalonia’s government Carles Puigdemont vowed for it to go ahead nonetheless.
Catalonia is not the only region in the world striving for independence. Kurdistan autonomous region in Iraq held an independence referendum on the 25th of September with an affirmative result. Despite the result, Kurdistan didn’t declare independence immediately and instead seeks to negotiate with Iraq. Other cases of controversial unilateral independence declaration include Kosovo, even though Kosovo is now recognised as a state by most countries. Unsuccessful and agreed referendums also took place in the Canadian province of Quebec and Scotland. Northern Cyprus, Crimea, Abkhazia and South Ossetia also illustrate how the independence movement can be used by a foreign power. All in all, the issue of independence of regions that for one reason or another feel distinct to the rest of their country is something that affects countries all around the world.
Those looking for independence often cite the international norm of the right to self-determination of peoples. It is stipulated in the UN Charter and played an important role in the process of de-colonisation. However, the principle has long been accompanied by debates regarding its extent. From the definition of who constitutes a “people” to the self-determination’s interaction with national sovereignty. The legal precedent established by the UN and the ICJ is that the national sovereignty takes precedence unless the group of people in question has suffered particular injustices. Is privileging national sovereignty an outdated approach in today’s world? And if so how do we prevent states splitting into ever smaller units? It is obvious from the events in Catalonia, Kurdistan, and elsewhere, that the debate on the co-existence of these two essential international norms rages on.