Sunday, November 23, 2014

Is There A Right To Secede?

BARCELONA – The European Union has brought 28 countries into a closer political and economic union. Paradoxically, it has also made it more feasible to contemplate the breakup of some of those countries.

Independence for a small state outside of a political and economic group like the EU would be risky nowadays. Within the EU, however, the barriers between states – and thus the economic and political risks of independence – are lower.

Consider Scotland, where a popular referendum on independence will be held on September 18. The referendum is the result of the landslide victory by the Scottish National Party in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election. British Prime Minister David Cameron has argued against Scotland leaving the United Kingdom, but he has not opposed holding the referendum. Opinion polls taken since the wording of the referendum (“Should Scotland be an independent country?”) was announced indicate that the “yes” side is unlikely to gain a clear majority.

In Spain, there is a national debate about independence for Catalonia, where national identity is strengthened by the fact that the majority of the region’s residents speak Catalan as well as Spanish. By contrast, only about 1% of Scots can speak Scottish Gaelic. Perhaps as a result, support for independence in Catalonia appears to be far broader, with about half of the region’s residents saying that they support secession.

But the Spanish parliament voted overwhelmingly against allowing the Catalan government to hold a referendum on independence, and the central government has said that such a vote would be unconstitutional. Artur Mas, President of Catalonia’s regional government, has vowed to go ahead with a non-binding referendum anyway.

If a majority of the voters in a distinct region of a country favor independence, does that mean that they have a right to secede? There are surely more questions that need to be addressed than that single one.

What if a region’s secession leaves behind a rump state that is no longer viable? Within the EU, this is less of an issue, given that small states – in theory – still benefit from free trade within the Union; but, outside of the EU, the situation of the remaining state can be dire.

In September 1938, Hitler threatened to attack Czechoslovakia in order to bring the ethnic Germans living near the German border under his rule. The Munich Agreement gave this region, referred to by the Nazis as the Sudetenland, to Germany, leaving Czechoslovakia without defensible borders and paving the way for the Nazi invasion and partition of the country the following March.

Had a free and fair referendum been offered to the Sudeten Germans, a majority might have backed union with Germany. But would that have given them the right to leave the remainder of Czechoslovakia defenseless against its large and hostile neighbor?

The UK and Spain do not need to fear that independence for Scotland and Catalonia would expose them to such threats. Nonetheless, the secession of Scotland would deprive the UK of significant North Sea oil revenues, on which the economics of Scottish independence largely relies, and Spain could also suffer from the loss of Catalonia’s disproportionately large contribution to the Spanish economy.

Widespread human rights violations, either caused or tolerated by a national government, can give rise to what is sometimes called a remedial right to secession for a region’s inhabitants. If other remedies fail in such a situation, secession might be justified as a last resort, even if it imposes heavy costs on the rump state.

That was the case when Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan, and it was also allegedly the case when NATO supported Kosovo’s independence from Serbia. But this is not true of Scotland or Catalonia; nor, despite Russian propaganda, does it appear to be the case for those regions of Ukraine with ethnic Russian majorities.

If Scotland and Catalonia ever become independent countries, it will only be because the UK and Spain permit it. All states have an interest in stability, so it is hard to imagine that, in the absence of widespread, grave, and undeniable human rights violations, other states would recognize a region that, after being part of a state for many centuries, declared itself independent without the acquiescence of the country from which it secedes.

The EU is also unlikely to accept Scotland or Catalonia as a member if the UK or Spain rejects their claims to independence. Indeed, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso has said that the EU may reject Scotland and Catalonia’s applications, or at least delay them considerably, even if the UK and Spain do accept their independence. And, without EU membership, it is hard to imagine that a majority of people in Scotland or Catalonia would take the plunge into economic uncertainty that independence would bring.

The role of a referendum in a region seeking to secede can therefore only be a form of persuasion aimed at the government of the existing state. A large turnout showing a clear majority for independence would be a way to say: See how strongly we feel about this issue. We are so dissatisfied with the status quo that most of us now favor secession. If you want us to stay, you need to address the grievances that have caused a majority of us to want to leave.

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    1. CommentedRodrigo Prodolliet

      Mr. Singer
      I agree with your argument, and I speak knowing the Catalan situation from living there. Allow me to add to additional aspects:
      1. The Nationalist Regime in power in Catalonia for now 30 years has used all the public media as well as the educational and cultural structures in Catalonia to "educate" public opinion towards a uniform "national thinking" not unlike propaganda movements in the 30's in Europa. There is no "free democratic will" unter unified media control and 30 years of brainwashing.
      2. The conditions of non-respect of cultural rights and culture are now given for the spanish-speaking population in Catalonia. You can be fined if you write the signs of your business of your restaurant's menu card in Spanisch and not in Catalan! (wisely, this is rarely applied - but you see the mindset of people enabling such laws). If Catalonia were independent (the eradication of spanish language and culture would then find no legal limits), spanish-speaking parts would under this principle have the right to separate from Catalona..and so on.. and so on.

    2. CommentedThinking Indian

      Mr Singer is right. In a referendum, 51% can decide fate of 100% of a group which constitutes only a part of a much larger affected group. This should be allowed only when there are very strong reasons for it, as in case of Bangladesh separating from Pakistan.

    3. CommentedHoward Bergman

      When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

      We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

    4. Commenteddeclan doyle

      i only registered to register my dis-belief at such a badly argued article. if this is the level of expertise in project syndicate then the world is going to hell in a very leaky boat.

      1. catalunya has existed as a nation LONG before spain ever did.
      2. the catalan language is far older than spanish.
      3. does a nation's right to exist depend entirely on defensible borders?
      4. the EU can only publicly dis-avow regional wishes to secede until it happens as the EU has an in-built need to please its members, but does anyone seriously believe that brussels would allow such an economic power-house like catalunya to be left outside the EU, to the serious temptations of a Mediterranean alliance?

    5. CommentedDouglas Costello

      this article doesn't show why regions want to secede. Some of the examples such as Bangladesh seceding from Pakistan was more the result of geography and discrimination. The partition of India and the creation of two parts to Pakistan separated by India shows once again the British inability to learn from history when they divided up Africa as a Colonial Power and got that wrong.

      Secession demand appears to be more the expression of a region living a fantasy rather than considering reality.

      What has to be considered is what motivates the secession demand and what can be done to resolve that driving force, we need fewer not more postage stamp couuntries.

    6. CommentedD. V. Gendre

      This article exactly shows why regions want to secede from countries. There are too many bureaucrats and theoreticians around.
      So the US should be reintegrated into GB? Was there no reason for independence of the US from GB?
      The bureaucrate prefere to see blood on the streets, since they only have faith in written documents rather then real humans.

    7. CommentedColin Mackay

      Still a fan of enlightened secession;
      We, 'the enlightened', recognising the crises of global ecological, cultural and economic consequence and, given the abject and absolute failure of nation states, operating in international accord, to adequately address any of the underlying drivers of demise, hereby cede engagement with the antiquarian past in the pursuit of a stable and sustainable future.
      While the 'right' may not exist, the economic consequence for the 'rump' would be telling!

    8. CommentedSlavomír Jančok

      Question is left unanswered: How it comes that Mr. SInger is expert not only on practical ethics but also on such issues as morality or/and law in international relations ? Or another way: Why do intellectuals tend to think, that they are able to write about anything ?

    9. CommentedSlavomír Jančok

      Well, is this provided for by EU law ? Let me put it straight: It is not even clear if such new states will need to apply for membership. Considered from viewpoint of international law, by which also member states of the EU are bound (and at least by UN Charter also EU itself, disregard her ambigous legal nature) we can fairly argue that new states seceding from member states of union, are (valid also for the rump state) partial legal successors of the original member state. (Nota bene: I am profoundly happy that Slovakia has declared independence in accord with Czech republic, dissolving the Czechoslovakia BEFORE we acceded to the Union.

    10. CommentedCarles Torres

      Dear Mr. Singer,
      1) Would you qualify the fact that Catalan citizens have no possibility to DEMOCRATICALLY vote today on their future as “in line” with human rights and the international legal framework on self-determination? Is your view then that if they can not vote, this is no democratic and then they can secede…?
      2) If your view is that secession is only valid “in the absence of widespread, grave, and undeniable human rights violations”… would your view applicable to the right of UK citizens to vote in a referendum to leave the UE or a wife to leave his husband in similar ethical terms?
      3) I believe that neither you nor me are historians but I know enough to say that Catalan history in relation to Spain in the last centuries is not an example of “absence of widespread, grave, and undeniable human rights violations”. As an example: the persecution / banning of the Catalan language. Even in the “democratic” Spain today statements such as “our interest is to Hispanicise Catalan students” are being made (Minister of Education, Spanish Congress). So a) how would you define “grave” and b) who should judge that if not the ones suffering from it?
      4) If you take out of context examples (Sudetes) to say the least, I hope you will allow me to do that as well. Are you implying with your thinking that the United States should not have existed because it imposed “too heavy costs on the rump state” at the time?

    11. Commentedjosep sort

      How do you dare to associate democratic processes lika Catalonia and Sacotland's with the Sudeten case? Are you out of you mind? Be seroius man, be seroius.

      Two. As a bioethics academic, you expect to see blood in order to accept independence> Is that fair? Not at all.

      And three: do not rely on Mr. Solana arguments. He tried to avoid Montenegro independence and failed, even after inventing the Solanistan solution. I t failed miserably.

    12. CommentedDave Bremner

      Scotland is not a "region". It might be worthwhile the author looking into the history of the United Kingdom.

    13. CommentedEdphil Kenneth

      Is there a Right To Secede? This is Dependent on who answers your question.Answered by the Guardians of geo-strategic statusquo,it is dependent on the strategic choices they make for the day.Such a right exists when Southern Sudan is manipulated out of Sudan or when Kosovo is bombed out of Yugoslavia but it does not exist when the Igbos of Nigeria were annihilated in a British/Russian supported genocide or when the Palestinians seeks for an independent state from Israeli persecution.Human rights or not,geopolitical interests determine the answer to the question.

    14. CommentedAbel Cain

      What a biased article! Is a comparison with nazi Germany really the best you could find? What about Norway's independence from Sweden? What about the three baltic states? What about the separation of Czechoslovakia? Where are the human right violations there? What you are saying is: Iet there be no changes UNTIL human rights are infringed. Well that's not things should work. Conflicts of any kind must be resolved democratically by voting and letting people decide.