International law failure

It is either borders or self-determination, the two principles are mutually exclusive

Photo: Ivailo Tsvetkov

The events that have transpired in the Spanish autonomous region of Catalonia since 1 October shook Spain and sent shock waves across Europe and other corners of the world. As a result, some have been prompted to predict violent clashes with the central power in Spain, while others hope for a civilised solution to the crisis.

The events that have transpired in the Spanish autonomous region of Catalonia since 1 October shook Spain and sent shock waves across Europe and other corners of the world. As a result, some have been prompted to predict violent clashes with the central power in Spain, while others hope for a civilised solution to the crisis. The latter would entail different methods – from granting the troubled province an even greater degree of autonomy to a peaceful secession. 
Europe has certainly seen plenty of both in the post-WWII era. In 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated in a fairly non-violent manner. Roughly at the same time, the Yugoslavian federation collapsed following a vicious civil war, which took the lives of 100,000 people and displaced over four million. By contrast, Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in a civilised manner in 1993, and today both countries are members of NATO and the EU. 
Another recurring theme of post-war Europe is the secession of territories from sovereign states, which then form their own nation-states or join already existing ones. Here are the most famous examples. 
In 1974, after a failed coup attempt and a Turkish military intervention, the northern part of the Republic of Cyprus seceded to form what is nowadays the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, officially recognised only by Ankara. Those events lead to the fall of the military junta ruling Greece at the time, helping to restore democracy in Greece. 
In 1999, the NATO airstrikes on Serbia and Montenegro paved the way for the secession of the autonomous region of Kosovo from Serbia and the proclamation of its independence in 2008. The resulting state is yet to be recognised not only by Serbia but numerous others states, including some members of NATO and the EU. 
Within the former Soviet Union borders the secession of the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and its subsequent joining of the Russian Federation, is arguably the most interesting development, along with the emergence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, which are not internationally acknowledged. Also worth monitoring are the implications of the advisory referendum on independence held in Iraqi Kurdistan on 25 September, which further complicated the situation in the Middle East. 
As far as major democratic countries in the west are concerned, secession attempts have been documented in Canada and the UK. The latest one was the Scottish independence referendum held in 2014. Back then, 55% of voters rejected the idea. However, in light of Brexit, Scotland will renew its efforts to leave the UK with another referendum next year at the earliest. Unlike England, Scotland has expressed its wish to remain part of the EU. This time around, the vote is expected to be in favour of independence. 
With regard to the controversial Catalan referendum, it is worth noting that this particular Spanish province, with a population of 7.5 million people, accounts for the largest chunk of the country’s economy, with 20% share of GDP. However, the push for independence is not only a matter of economics but psychology too. It has two components. The first one is the political elite’s willingness to upgrade its status. Put simply, regional officials have ambitions to be prime ministers and ministers. The second is that regular folks want to be richer because they believe the other Spanish provinces, more specifically those to the south, are dragging them down. And, of course, being a sovereign state seems prestigious, a source of national pride. 
The inept actions of the Spanish central government prior, during and following the Catalan referendum seem inadequate and even downright stupid. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and King Felipe VI, who demonstrated some aggressive rhetoric, have to count their blessings that there were no casualties on 1 October. Otherwise, the powerful primal instincts that rule any mob would have been triggered and things would have taken a turn for the tragic. History abounds in such examples. 
Moreover, the actions of the central government seemed ill-advised not least because it was well known that the majority of the Catalans are not in favour of secession from Spain, meaning that the referendum would most likely have failed. The outcome of over 90% of votes supporting independence was due to the fact that the supporters of this option went to the polls in droves, while the other camp, which is probably the majority, followed Madrid’s call and stayed at home. The upshot is that those who want secession now have ammunition to their claim that it is the wish of most Catalans. It is probably not true but there is no way of knowing now because the worst-case scenario has come to pass. And if there is some way to rationalise the actions of Rajoy and his belligerent deputy it is that they were not so much afraid of the Catalan referendum as they were of a possible vote in another autonomous Spanish province – the Basque Country. The attitudes there are also well-known and they weigh heavy in the direction of secession. If Catalonia declares independence, the Basque Country is surely next in line. 
All of this trouble can be traced back to one reason – international law regulating relations between countries is deeply flawed and contradictory. At its core are two basic principles, each of them clear and seemingly right on their own. However, in combination they are pure disaster. Can you imagine a law in which Article 1 stipulates that murders are illegal and Article 2 says that anyone has the right to kill? It sounds absurd but it is exactly the contradiction contained in international law. 
According to the first basic principle of international law, the territorial integrity of states is sacred and inviolable. It is a nice principle because a normal, democratic world would be unthinkable if anyone (especially the more powerful) could grab lands from their neighbours or steer them into becoming their satellites. Such a world would have no chance for normalcy or democracy. 
The second basic principle states that peoples have the right to political self-determination, including to their own state. This too is a fine principle because what could be better than for people to be able to determine their own fate in line with their own notions and traditions? But here is the problem – if a large group of people in a country have matured for the idea of self-determination, how will they be able to fulfil the dream promised to them by the second principle? The only way is to form their own state on the territory they populate. This, in turn, entails redrawing the sacred and inviolable borders of the host country in violation of the first principle of international law. So a choice has to be made between an emphasis on borders and on self-determination. Otherwise, everyone will cite whatever principle serves them in a conflict. When NATO was helping the cause of Kosovo’s secession from Serbia, the actions were justified with the wishes of the people of Kosovo that are protected by the second principle. But what about the Serbian borders being inviolable under the first principle? Well, to hell with those, as it is now acceptable to put it, even among diplomats of the highest rank. And what about when Russia was tearing the Crimea away from Ukraine, was it right? If you consult the second principle and the people of the Crimea, who even voted in a referendum, the answer is in the affirmative. But we believe it is not right, as it goes against the first principle. This time, it was Russia that said “to hell with borders”, just as we told Serbia earlier. 
Some say this is a case of implementing double standards, which leads to nothing good and never could. But they are not completely right. It is a failure of international law due to the existence of two mutually exclusive principles, which are being selectively implemented. As long as both of those principles are at play, the convenient inconsistency will continue and power will trump legal principles to win out in every conflict. 

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