Students gather as they demonstrate against the position of the Spanish government Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The Who, Where, and When of Secession

National self-determination, the principle that US President Woodrow Wilson put on the international agenda in 1918, is generally defined as the right of a people to form its own state. The independence referendums in Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia are the latest examples showing why that principle is so often difficult to apply.

CAMBRIDGE – This week, Kurds in northern Iraq voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence for the country’s Kurdistan Region. With some 30 million Kurds divided among four states (Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran), nationalists argue that they deserve the world’s recognition. In Spain, some 7.5 million Catalans have raised the same question.

Does it matter that polls show Catalans, unlike Kurds, to be closely divided on the issue? Does it matter that the states bordering Iraqi Kurdistan might use force to resist secession?

National self-determination, the principle that US President Woodrow Wilson put on the international agenda in 1918, is generally defined as the right of a people to form its own state. But who is the “self” that makes this determination?

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