Monday, 30 October 2017

A clash of principles

In relation to the situation in Catalunya, much has been made of the statement in the UN Charter about the right of peoples to self-determination.  It’s a clear enough statement, but as I posted previously, the problem comes in determining what defines a ‘people’ – or perhaps who defines a people.  There simply is (and I doubt that there can ever be) a simple objective test which can be applied.  So the Spanish authorities use the definition that suits their objectives whilst the independentistas in Catalunya use the one that suits theirs.  And there is no independent authority which can decide that one is right and the other wrong.  To, I’m sure, the great surprise of no-one, I support that Catalan side; but I also go further and question why ‘being a people’, however it is defined, is a necessary requirement for the exercise of self-determination.  Imposing what is, in essence, a subjective test with no objective ‘right’ answer seems an unnecessary obstacle to me.
In addition, there’s the question of context.  Whilst the Charter does not make this explicit, it is quite clear – as the authorities in Madrid would argue – that the context of the Charter was the period of decolonization, and the intention of the relevant article was to support the rights of the former colonies.  In that particular wave of colonization and conquest, places such as Catalunya (and the same applies to Scotland and Wales) were part of the process of colonization and conquest rather than the victims of it.  But, of course, if we go back further in time, they were part of an earlier phase of conquest and consolidation, as the historic European states were created.  So – is there to be a time limit on the right to self-determination?  Because that’s effectively what the Spanish state is arguing, isn’t it?
To further complicate the situation, there is another widely-accepted tenet of international law, which is that states have a right to territorial integrity.  Spain is, to an extent, relying on that principle, and much of the response from other European states has been based on that principle as well.  There is, though, a context to that principle as well.  It was accepted by European states as a basis for ending wars of aggression over territory, by accepting the boundaries as they stand today, and agreeing not to seek to change them by force, and was intended to be a means to put an end to centuries of bloodshed and war.  And it has, no doubt, been a contributory factor.  It hasn’t stopped states arguing over boundaries (for example, Spain’s own claim to Gibraltar), but it has prevented the argument going much beyond shouting.
The context, though, was never intended as an insistence that there could never be any change at all (and, in the situation of Gibraltar, Spain actually accepts that to be true), nor was putting an end to externally-imposed territorial change ever intended to be the same as insisting that states created out of a process of aggregation could never disaggregate if the people chose that, although it is ‘convenient’ for Spain – like the other aggregated states – to pretend that to be the case.  But demanding that people accept that the state of which they find themselves a part is their lot in life, which they have no choice but to accept as an unchangeable fact, goes directly against the principle of self-determination.
Two key principles of international law, in the context of Catalunya, are in direct conflict, and there is no international body or organisation which can rule between the two.  Ultimately, the only people who can decide the future of Catalunya are the people of that country/region themselves.  The tragedy of today’s situation is that it is the direct result of a refusal to allow them to make that choice in a peaceful and democratic fashion, but instead insist on imposition, by force if necessary.


Anonymous said...

In Catalunya it seems some people want to be independent from Spain and others don't. So why can't the various factions just split the territory into a Spanish part and an independent part, the size of each determined by the respective populations. For sure this will take time to negotiate but at least it'll result in a settled outcome.

Same should happen here in Wales. An independent Wales, predominantly English speaking Anglo Saxon culture, another independent Wales, predominantly Welsh speaking Celtic culture, another Wales that remains part of England&Wales just as it is now, and so on. Some of these new territories may be tiny but who cares just as long as the people are happy and they can afford to look after themselves.

Surely this is a much better solution than a yes/no referendum or party political election. Everyone is allowed the opportunity to self-determine and live with the consequences.

No more trouble makers making trouble!


Jac o' the North, said...

As you suggest, it is complicated.

As for what constitutes a people, I think Renan sums it up well enough, even dealing with provinces.

Addressing the matter of territorial integrity, my understanding always was that this principle was designed to deter irredentism, the cause of so much conflict, from the Revanchism of post-1871 France to the anger most Germans felt after Versailles.

Though that said, the internationally respected principle of territorial integrity did nothing to save Jugoslavia.

Germany rushing to recognise Bosnian independence - or rather a declaration made by self-appointed leaders of the Muslim minority - gave the game away, and told us that treaties, charters and agreements count for nothing. It usually boils down to what serves the best interests of the major players at any given time.

Though of course the West would argue that Jugoslavia 'fell apart' because subject peoples wanted to escape Serbian domination . . . which rather exposes the hypocrisy we see now over Catalunya.

At this point in time the major players feel their best interests are served in supporting Madrid. Others see things differently, which is why, as I write this, Puigdemont is in Belgium talking with Flemish representatives.

John Dixon said...


Yes, well, as I recall, that sort of approach wasn't exactly a spectacular success in the sub-continent. But perhaps you'd also move all 'Remainers' to Scotland or Northern Ireland, so that the majority in EnglandandWales can have their wish?

The more usual approach is to allow the majority in any area to decide through a democratic process. Those who don't like the outcome are always free to do one of three things: Campaign to change the decision, accept the decision, or move elsewhere.

Enforced movement so that like lives with like is not exactly democracy in action.


Thanks for the link to Renan's statement. I read it as confirming the essentially subjective nature of nationality, albeit drawing on objective facts (or interpretations of those facts) in the development of that subjective view. It didn't leave me with enough of an objective definition for anyone to be able to apply in solving any particular situation (although that won't stop those who believe that there must be a clear-cut criterion). But his words on provinces sum up the point that it doesn't matter whether someone else thinks that a nation exists or not; all that matters is whether the people in that province think so, and whether they wish to govern themselves.

Jonathan said...

The position in International Law is quite simple.
There is an International Court of Justice in the Hague which is the neutral arbiter. But only sovereign states can go there.
The Law of recognition has one clear criterion
- is the candidate State self-governing? Non self-governors need not apply. In English Law Wales is a nation, so that's OK, but it is only borderline self-governing. If you don't run your own law, courts and legal system you will not even get off the ground. Scotland would. Wales could run its own law, courts and legal system. England makes this out to be a big deal but it actually isn't. 50 US States all do this, many smaller than Wales. It works fine.
The Law of recognition has one criterion which is NOT clear
You must be recognised by other sovereign states. They cannot be compelled to do this. Er, because they are sovereign. They are free to recognise a new state, or not. History has many examples falling either side of the line. There is no clear pattern
- Ireland: yes (US backing?)
- Biafra: no (UK against, and Nigeria obviously)
- Slovenia: yes, easy, for some reason. (No complication like Belgrade objecting?)
- Confederate States of America in the Civil War: very very close. UK and France got very close but in the end did not recognise. Because the Confederates lost Antietam and Gettysburg etc and the North looked like winning. And UK eventually decided against on slavery.
- Israel: US yes, Arabs hostile.
- Palestine: see the problem?
- Scotland: has own legal system, historically separate Monarchy etc etc. London and Madrid would object so (how ever unfairly) the Scots will have a hard time being recognised. Though Scotland might get lucky because of the Scottish diaspora in the USA which (sorry Prime Minister) will not automatically support London if freedom is at stake.
You do actually have to fight for self-government and then get recognition as a sovereign state. There is no point in moaning. Wales will have to earn it the hard way. Start with running our own legal system. Go from there to "Dominion Status"/Statehood ie like Scotland. And then try to play in the big international league. Develop a thick skin and get the US/Welsh diaspora going.Play whatever card you can find.

Anonymous said...


You can only run your own legal system if you have the financial means so to do. Or else secure the means from elsewhere. I doubt very much England or Scotland wish to pay a penny more in Barnett transfers. So the money will have to come from education or health.

Not a great sell to the Welsh electorate is it?

John Dixon said...

Anon 17:58,

That's a rather over-simplistic statement which makes a number of unstated assumptions, including that Wales makes no payment to the existing EnglandandWales legal system, which is simply nonsense. We already have a functioning legal system here in Wales which is already being paid for; the question is to whom it is answerable and accountable.