In my opinion the secession of Catalonia from Spain would be a disaster for the Catalan and Spanish people. However there is no moral or legal principle behind the opposition to it of Western governments. Here’s why
(1) The Western powers say that any declaration of independence by Catalonia would be contrary to international law because it is contrary to Spain’s constitution.
However in its Advisory Opinion on Kosovo the International Court of Justice, accepting legal arguments made by the US and the other major Western powers, said that declarations of independence such as the one just made by Catalonia are not contrary to international law even if they are contrary to the terms of the constitution of the country being seceded from.
79. During the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there were numerous instances of declarations of independence, often strenuously opposed by the State from which independence was being declared. Sometimes a declaration resulted in the creation of a new State, at others it did not. In no case, however, does the practice of States as a whole suggest that the act of promulgating the declaration was regarded as contrary to international law. On the contrary, State practice during this period points clearly to the conclusion that international law contained no prohibition of declarations of independence. During the second half of the twentieth century, the international law of self-determination developed in such a way as to create a right to independence for the peoples of non-self-governing territories and peoples subject to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation (cf. Legal Consequences for States of the Continued Presence of South Africa in Namibia (South West Africa) notwithstanding Security Council Resolution 276 (1970), Advisory Opinion, I.C.J. Reports 1971, pp. 31-32, paras. 52-53; East Timor (Portugal v. Australia), Judgment, I.C.J. Reports 1995, p. 102, para. 29; Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Advisory Opinion, I.C.J. Reports 2004 (I), pp. 171-172, para. 88). A great many new States have come into existence as a result of the exercise of this right. There were, however, also instances of declarations of independence outside this context. The practice of States in these latter cases does not point to the emergence in international law of a new rule prohibiting the making of a declaration of independence in such cases.
(bold italics added)
On what grounds do the Western powers now say that Catalonia’s declaration of independence is contrary to international law when the International Court of Justice in its Advisory Opinion on Kosovo says otherwise?
Given that the Western powers themselves argued the case to the International Court of Justice which led to the Advisory Opinion on Kosovo, on what grounds do they now say that in the case of Catalonia these very same arguments which they made on behalf of Kosovo do not apply?
(2) The Western powers often say they support the right of national self-determination, which they all too often take to mean the right to secession from another state.
The Western powers have insisted on the rigorous application of this principle to the former republics of the USSR, to the former republics of Yugoslavia, to Kosovo and Montenegro when they seceded from Serbia, and to South Sudan.
In each and every one of these cases the Western powers vigorously supported the secessionist or ‘independence’ movements that achieved the independence of these countries.
However they deny this very same right of national self-determination (as they interpret it) to the Serbs of Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, to the Abkhazians and South Ossetians who have seceded from Georgia, to the people of Crimea, to the Russian speaking people of eastern Ukraine and the Baltic States, and now to the people of Catalonia. Why?
(3) Further to (2), the Western powers vigorously condemned the use of force by the state authorities of the USSR, Yugoslavia, Serbia, Russia and Sudan to suppress the secessionist movements in the Baltic States and in Slovenia in 1991, in Chechnya and Kosovo during the 1990s, and later the secessionist rebels in South Sudan.
However they have supported Georgia’s use of force against South Ossetia in 2008, Ukraine’s use of force against the people of the Donbass since 2014, and the Spanish authorities’ use of force in Catalonia now.
Interestingly, in both the Donbass in 2014 and in Catalonia during the current crisis the authorities of respectively Ukraine and Spain have attempted to use force to try to stop independence referendums from taking place.
Why is the use of force in the former cases to be condemned and in the latter cases to be supported?
(4) On the subject of the use of force, in the winter of 2013 to 2014 the Western powers vigorously condemned the ‘use of force’ by the Ukrainian police acting on behalf of President Yanukovych’s government, even though the protesters occupying Maidan Square in Kiev and government buildings across Ukraine whom the police were pitted against were not at all peaceful but were on the contrary extremely violent.
In the case of Catalonia during the current crisis the Western powers have by contrast supported the use of force by the Spanish authorities against Catalans who were trying to vote peacefully in a referendum called by the legally elected local government.
Why is the use of force in the latter case being supported when in the former case it was condemned?
(5) The Western powers say that the independence referendum which has just been held in Catalonia has no legal effect because it was held contrary to the laws and constitution of Spain. The Western powers have also said the same thing in relation to the independence referendums which were held in Crimea and in the Donbass in 2014.
However in their submissions to the International Court of Justice on the subject of the declaration of independence by Kosovo, the Western powers argued that the court should disregard the fact that Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2006 was made in disregard of Kosovo’s own legal procedures and without an independence referendum, this being allegedly something which was unimportant.
Why was following legal procedures so important in Crimea and Donbass in 2014, and why is it so important in Catalonia now, and why was it so unimportant in Kosovo when it declared independence in 2006?
(6) Why in fact is the question of constitutional legality and of legal procedure so important at all when it was completely disregarded by the Western powers in the case of the various independence declarations of the former Soviet and Yugoslav republics and in the unconstitutional stripping of power in 2014 of Ukraine’s President Yanukovych, who was ousted from the Ukrainian Presidency with Western support despite the fact that the impeachment process set out in Ukraine’s constitution was not followed?
(7) Lastly, in light of the fact that the Catalan crisis is being blamed – predictably enough – on the Russians (though the evidence for that seems to amount to no more than the fact that the Russian news agency Sputnik has retweeted some of Julian Assange’s pro-Catalan independence tweets), why condemn Russian alleged ‘interference’ in Catalonia (and in Crimea and Donbass) whilst acquiescing in Germany’s unilateral recognition in December 1991 of the independence declarations of Croatia and Slovenia, and overt support for the independence movements in those countries?
Why should Russian support for the independence movement in Crimea, and the alleged Russian support for the independence movements in Donbass and Ukraine be condemned at all, when in 1999 NATO carried out an aerial bombing campaign against Yugoslavia for 78 days in support of an independence movement in Kosovo, which ultimately led to the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, something which goes far beyond anything Russia has done or is alleged to have done?
Setting out these seven points, the reality reveals itself.
The Western powers can be relied upon to support secessionist movements and to condemn the use of force to suppress them when this happens in countries which the Western powers consider their adversaries eg. the USSR, Russia or Yugoslavia.
The Western powers can however be equally relied upon to oppose – and support or acquiesce in the use of force to suppress – secessionist movements either in one of themselves – such as Spain – or in a state allied to themselves such as Croatia or Ukraine.
There is no principle or morality involved. It is purely a question of geopolitics and expediency.
At this point let me reiterate again that I do not support the cause of Catalan independence.
I do not find either the arguments which are made for it, or those in Catalonia who make those arguments, at all convincing. I believe it to be overwhelmingly in the interests of Spain’s and Catalonia’s people that Spain – one of the historic states and nations of Europe – should remain united.
I would add that I felt exactly the same way about the USSR, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. I opposed the break up of all three of these countries. Moreover nothing which has happened since to the peoples of those countries has made me change my mind or think I was wrong about doing so. In no sense do I think that the people of these countries are living better today when they are separated from each other than would be the case if they were still living together in one country. On the contrary I believe the opposite is the case.
I would add that I think exactly the same applies to Britain and Canada as they contend with the problems of demands for Scottish and French Canadian independence made by people in Scotland and French Canada who seem to me very like the nationalists in Catalonia.
Nor I would add did I favour the break-up of Ukraine until the extremist actions of the Maidan movement – another nationalist movement whose outlook reminds me strongly of that of the nationalists of other places, though with a militancy taken to the extreme – made Ukraine’s break-up both necessary and unavoidable.
In saying this I appreciate that there are many people who will disagree with me, either as a matter of principle or because of what they say are the facts in a given case.
My position however, whether agreed with or not, is at least simple and consistent.
That of the Western powers – cynical and based on expediency and one laced moreover with a large dollop of false moralising and hypocrisy – quite obviously is not.,