In the wake of the October 1 referendum on Catalan independence, the Spanish government is seeking to impose direct rule on its autonomous region.
Simultaneously the government of Iraq has sent its security forces to occupy disputed regions between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government. Baghdad is seeking to assert its control after a September 25 independence referendum in the Kurdistan region.
October has been a bad month for independence movements. The referendums in the Kurdistan region of Iraq and in Catalonia both received 92% in favor of independence. Turnout was much lower in Catalonia (42% compared to 72% in Kurdistan).
In both cases the central government rejected the vote as illegal and the Constitutional Court in Madrid and Supreme Court in Baghdad sought to suspend the vote. In both cases security forces have been employed, although slightly differently.
In Spain the police sought to prevent people from voting and tried to confiscate ballots and then ballot boxes on the day of the vote. In Iraq the government didn’t react until after the vote, closing airports in the Kurdistan region and then sending in the army to retake areas that are disputed, such as Kirkuk city. In both cases it appears the central government would like to send a strong and uncompromising message that any attempts to seek independence will be stymied and local leaders will be removed if necessary. In both cases the international community has not supported the independence initiatives or even the referendums.
The European Union sees the problems in Spain as an internal matter. European Council president Donald Tusk said “it is not on our agenda.” Similarly, while the US has expressed concern about Baghdad’s actions against the Kurdistan region, it worked against the referendum, and encouraged other states to oppose it while formally paying only bare lip-service to the rights of Kurds to autonomy.
The world was not always so opposed to independence movements. During the 20th century around 148 countries declared independence and had it widely recognized by the international community. 193 countries are now members of the United Nations. Only four states have successfully sought independence and received widespread recognition since 2000, including Montenegro, South Sudan, Kosovo and East Timor.
Many other states seeking independence have found themselves traveling an impossible road.
Palestinians have been seeking independence for decades but only in 2012 were recognized as a non-member observer state at the UN. The Republic of Kosovo is only recognized by 111 states. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which is in Western Sahara and occupied by Morocco since the 1970s, has been recognized by more than two dozen countries. Taiwan, which once enjoyed more recognition, is still recognized by only 19 states.
The Republic of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus, Transnistria and Artsakh in Ngorno-Karabakh are recognized by only one or several states.
Somaliland, which declared independence in 1991, is not recognized by any state.
The 20th century was a boon for independent states because many colonial empires dissolved during that century. In 1960 18 states received independence.
The breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia also led to more than two dozen states declaring independence.
So why has the trend toward independence slowed? In some ways it is a function of changing views toward rights and liberty in the West. Western countries once colonized much of the known world and then looked on themselves as “granting” independence. Since they can grant it, they can choose not to grant it and they tend to see former colonies through the lens of parent-child relationships.
They created a country, so if citizens of that country want to create another country from it that would reflect badly on the West’s decision regarding governance and where to draw the borders.
For that reason Somaliland cannot have independence.
It was once colonized by the British and then unified with the Italian colony next door to form Somalia. Since its people were never asked by the colonizer if they wanted to be colonized, they cannot be allowed to decide for themselves to go their separate way because it would reflect badly on British and Italian policy. In this way the long shadow of colonialism still controls much of the known world, because Western governments will almost never recognize the rights of Africans, South Americans or any people anywhere to re-draw borders that were drawn by Europeans.
SIMILARLY IN the former Soviet Union, the attempt by groups to break away from countries whose artificial borders were sometimes made by Soviet-era decisions are not recognized by the West. This is particularly strange in places like Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. Although one can say the annexation was done through Russian intervention, the question should be asked, under what conditions could Crimea be allowed to join Russia? Crimea was arbitrarily transferred from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954. They were never asked. So why is what was done in 1954 set in stone? The world has walked back its commitment to freedom and self-determination particularly because the 21st century has started out as a century of diminishing freedoms. Totalitarian regimes and press censorship are on the march. Countries are not becoming more democratic since 2000, in almost every case they are becoming less democratic.
In almost every case where groups want more freedom and democracy the international community has worked to silence them or support their suppression, whether it is in Venezuela, Bahrain or many other places. The world has lost the stomach for intervening to help people, such as the Rohingya.
In many cases it sees movements for independence as a form of “chaos” in the international system. It fears that in much of the world they lead to “ungoverned” spaces, which they see growing.
It seems ridiculous to reject Catalonia or Kurdistan’s interest in independence. If most of the people want it, why not let them have a free and fair vote and let them go their separate way? But logic and values are lost on the international community, which prefers what it calls “order.” That order has often produced genocide and actually exacerbated chaos, sometimes forcing relatively successful and stable places such as Somaliland to be shackled to failed states.
But the view from many foreign officers is that it is better to have a “united” Somalia that has failed and exports terrorism than allow a part of it to be free and thus cast doubt on what the international community has done or allowed to happen in Somalia for a hundred years.
In Southern Yemen as well, plans for secession must be met with no support for similar reasons.
Independence has become an old boy’s club, for one class of states that do not want challenges from within and work together to ensure each other’s sovereignty. That makes sense from a pragmatic point of view, but it ironically represents a fundamental erosion of many of the values that underpinned the emergence of all these currently independent states.
The 21st century does not look set to become one that will provide inspiration for future centuries.Follow the author @Sfrantzman