“National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. ‘Self-determination’ is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action.” – Woodrow Wilson, 1918.
Forgive me for opening with a quote, but it is an important one. 100 years ago in February, the status quo that had governed ideas of statehood and self-determination began to change. In the last century, the principle that people whose states had been taken away from them by foreign powers should have the right to govern themselves once more was the prevailing belief. The United Nations, formed after World War II, was devoted to the idea that colonies should be decolonised and control returned to the people of those nations, and it still is devoted to that cause.
The problem with that is relatively simple: former colonies are not the only peoples who deserve self-determination, and their borders are not always the fairest. With regards the borders, this is largely a problem that colonial borders were drawn for convenience, not because they incorporated an historical entity. Take, for example, Iraqi Kurdistan, which last week voted overwhelmingly to begin the process of becoming a new state. Kurdistan was divided by foreign powers amongst various colonial mandates and neighbouring countries (modern day Syria, Iran, Turkey and Iraq) because that was what was geopolitically convenient at the time.
This isn’t just a problem in Kurdistan, areas like Barotseland in Zambia, and indeed in a plethora of other locations across Africa and the Middle East, were incorporated into other territories and have since been abandoned, as their parent state’s departure from colonial rule produced a big tick in the UN’s list of areas which had been decolonised and can now rely on the full backing of the UN to keep minorities without statehood. Likewise, a lot of conflicts in the post-Soviet nations comes back to Soviet policies of deportations to create governable blocks of land, irrespective of smaller regions’ cultural or national backgrounds. The fact that debates around such nations always boil down to matters of geopolitics is, frankly, insulting, given that geopolitics often robbed these nations of their right to self-determination in the first place.
Debating whether or not to support the existence of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan is simple: do you believe that people may be dominated and governed only by their own consent? If you do, then congratulations, you should support the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan and other states like it, and worry about the geopolitical implications as a secondary priority.
In fact, the United Nations itself has largely been useless in responding to the fact that circumstances have changed in the last twenty years. Newly independent countries won’t be easily distinguishable former colonies, but more complex and dynamic scenarios where groups within well-established countries with to secede and follow their own national destiny. The UN actually often causes more problems for potential states than it solves. That UN membership is seen as one of the clearest indications of state sovereignty means that the ability of other, large, powerful nations to veto membership is merely an extension of an imperialist attitude that, regardless of how legitimate your claim to statehood, you need the backing of all of the ‘big powers’ to become a fully-fledged member of the international community.
States like Kosovo, Palestine and Taiwan have long been recognised by a multitude of UN members, but have been persistently denied their place as a full member of the organisation because they either have spats with powerful nations (Taiwan), with their allies (Palestine), or simply because it would set a precedent (Kosovo).
The UN has principles for decolonisation that set out important provisions for self-determination. They argue that being unprepared politically or economically for independence should not inhibit a nation’s right to self-determination, yet they allow their most influential members to hide behind this as a pretence as to why certain regions should not have self-determination. They argue that armed action to prevent self-determination should cease and that states should allow dependent peoples to exercise their right to statehood, and yet routinely fail to exercise this when it is a region of the home nation, rather than a colony that demands secession. Most importantly, they echo Woodrow Wilson and argue that all peoples have the right to self-determination, yet do not act on this unless it is a case of decolonisation or the new state has the blessing of the nation from which it is seceding.
Around the world, prospective states are routinely trampled on by the nation from whom they wish to secede, yet the UN refuses to apply its principle of self-determination in these cases. Instead, they have chosen a list of 17 territories to focus on that it deems the last vestiges of colonisation – many of whom (Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, French Polynesia, etc.) have made it clear that they have no desire for statehood. Rather than focussing on areas which do not seek self-determination because of a commitment made when the areas occupied by dependent people were very different to the modern day, a body truly committed to global justice would focus on the multitude of areas that do.
Today the people of Catalonia will vote in a referendum that the Spanish government has repeatedly tried to prevent. If they vote for independence, and then make a unilateral declaration to that effect, it will create a difficult geopolitical situation in Western Europe. Usually big powers are able to ignore secessionist movements because they occur outside of the Western world, but with Catalonia it will be imperative for countries to take a side – and there are no prizes for guessing which side they will choose.
The thing is, the Catalan people have a right to self-determination. If they choose independence, then we have a moral duty to support their efforts to achieve it, and so does the United Nations. This could be a chance for the UN to show that it is still relevant, and can go beyond obvious examples of decolonisation to take a principled stand that says once more that upholding self-determination isn’t a choice, it is the duty of a free society.
But even in the unlikely event that the UN sides with Catalonia (provided they vote for independence, of course), there is still more to be done to transform it into an organisation fit for a changed world. The principles of the Montevideo convention should be what governs whether or not a nation is sovereign and entitled to attend the UN: a state is a state if it possesses (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.
UN membership shouldn’t be an elite club which is designed to maintain the status quo, make it harder for secessionism and allow big nations to continue their imperial roles as the international community’s bouncers (“if you’re not an ally, you’re not getting in”). The people of Kurdistan have a right to self-determination, whether that is convenient or not, as do the people of Kosovo, Taiwan and all the other varied independence movements which meet the conditions of de facto statehood.
Nearly 100 years on from Woodrow Wilson delivering the words that reflected a change in the international order, it is time to go back to that doctrine that people may be dominated and governed only by their own consent.