2007 - 2022

Self Determination and Human Rights

“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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Comments (8)

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  1. bringiton says:

    Within the context of the European Union,one must assume that states who act against the interests of a minority community do so for reasons other than territorial control.
    Borders within the EU have little or no meaning so it must be for something else.
    In the case of Scotland,the UK state apparatus did everything it could short of the use of force to ensure it retained control of resources within Scotland.
    Perhaps the Spanish state is doing likewise but also with para militaries to ensure they hang onto Catalonian resources.
    Both the UK and Spain are currently governed by right wing governments whose instincts are to centralise power but that does not fit with a Europe of 27 states where sovereignty must be pooled,or at least some of it.
    The EU is going to have to rethink how it’s citizens are democratically represented within the union and not just leave it to individual states to decide.
    When people feel alienated from supposedly democratic structures and processes,the outcomes can be unpredictable and sometimes violent.
    I wonder whether Westminster would have agreed to be bound by the outcome of our referendum if they thought they might have lost it?
    Probably not and then what would have happened?

    1. Mr J R GEDDES. says:

      I think your right Westminster would not be not be bound by any referendums Scotland carried out and won there is to much at stake.
      We will have to go another way maybe the UN after all we are treated like a English colony anyway.

  2. Paul Carline says:

    Of course the people should choose. That is the fundamental principle of any genuine democracy. The people should choose the form of political/social/economic organisation they wish their lives to be organised around. The principle fundamentally opposes centralised power in any form. It demands that the organisation of public affairs at the national or regional or local level is chosen by those who are affected. They do not have to obey an existing order of things simply because some group or party or self-selected elite has usurped the popular right to decide under what system people want to live.
    That decision necessarily implies that a collective (majority) agreement has been made. That in turn necessarily implies that the people have written their own constitution (the rules of the game) and that a majority has approved it in a public vote (referendum).
    The people come before the state/whatever form of organisation of public affairs is in place. And they have the right to change it at regular intervals if they so wish e.g. if the arrangement becomes in any way oppressive or discriminatory. And they would always be involved in setting the political/social/economic agenda and making the important decisions.
    This would be living democracy. The whole problem derives from the existence of illegitimate centres of power which have usurped the people’s democratic rights and which serve vested interests. It’s the problem with the UK, very much with the EU, and in fact with all political constructs which are not based on the principle of popular sovereignty.
    Emmanuel Macron has just expressed his belief that there should be no local or even national sovereignty – that sovereignty should now be vested in “Europe” And will ‘European sovereignty’ later be subsumed under some form of ‘one world sovereignty’? And isn’t that what globalism is really about: one world government, the New World Order (Macron used the expression, as many have done before him)?
    It’s a recipe for disaster; actually a project for the enslavement of the masses under a small global elite. The EU was designed and created as the first major project in that direction after the creation of the USA. Churchill spoke in 1946 of the need for a “United States of Europe”.

    1. Frank says:

      “Emmanuel Macron has just expressed his belief that there should be no local or even national sovereignty – that sovereignty should now be vested in “Europe””
      That has been the aim from day one, it was the issue when the UK joined in 1973, but was denied by the Heath government – and it is the reason this nationalist voted NO! in the independence referendum. The SNP are, or at least were, in denial (surely not the alternative) but it is becoming increasingly obvious that the plan is to centralise power. How then can a nation be “Independent in Europe?

      1. bringiton says:

        What is happening in Spain brings this into sharp focus,again.
        The European courts guarantee individual rights across the EU but fail to address the role of the nation state in “modifying” these rights.
        Europe is currently in a condition of flux between a system of governance determined by individual states and an overarching framework which allows people to express their democratic rights within a much bigger structure.
        England and Spain are governed by administrations which believe in the absolute power of the nation state and appear to have little interest in pooling or sharing.
        Might is right.
        We Europeans have been here before to our great detriment.

  3. MBC says:

    Nobody is asking why it is they want to leave.

  4. Redguantlet says:

    Borrell is totally right about the Catalan referendum, there are no democratic guarantees…most Catalan intellectuals are against it, and more tellingly, there are many of them who want a referendum, just not this one; they want a real one, not a pretendy one, which is what this is…


  5. Frank says:

    Can the majority impose its will on the minority without denying them their rights? Human Rights are not a collective property, they belong to the individual and their purpose – “Is to protect the individual from over mighty government” And the purpose of government is “The promotion and protection of human rights.” (Both from “Charter of Paris” 1990. HMSO)

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