The post-colonial right of all peoples to self-determination and sovereignty is a key principle of contemporary international law and is binding in theory today on all world governments under the United Nations Charter of 1945.
Political leaders as different as American president Woodrow Wilson and Russian leader Vladimir Lenin supported the concept at the end of World War 1. In the 1920s and 30s, a number of countries, including Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, Australia, South Africa, and Lebanon, obtained sovereignty. The trend accelerated in the 1960s with independence being extended to 37 former colonies as new nations with UN General Assembly support. Colonial administrative boundaries became national ones even if they had little relevance to ethno-cultural and linguistic divisions.
The pattern was reversed for decades during the Cold War by the Soviet Union after 1945 in central and east Europe, but after Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power in 1985, communist regimes there collapsed in rapid succession when he resigned as president of the USSR in1991.
Fifteen sovereign republics replaced it, all of which rejected communism and most of which adopted democratic reform. Since then, the principle of national self-determination has led to a host of conflicts within countries as subgroups seek greater autonomy or full secession, occasionally resulting in violence and terror.
The 2000 Millennium Declaration failed to deal with such demands, mentioning only “the right to self-determination of peoples which remain under colonial domination and foreign occupation.”
The Kosovo decision of the International Court of Justice proposed the following criteria for defining a people having the right of self-determination: tradition and culture, ethnicity, historical ties, language, religion, sense of identity or kinship, the will to constitute a people, and common suffering. There is today often a conflict between the principles of self-determination and territorial integrity.
Allen Buchanan, who wrote seven books on self-determination, says a subregional community has a “general right to secede if and only if it has suffered certain injustices” for which secession is the remedy of final resort. He also recognizes secession if a state or its constitution includes a right to secede.
Currently, there are more than fifty active secessionist movements around the world, states Ryan Griffiths in his “Age of Secession: The International and Domestic Determinants of State Birth.” Three to watch are:
Catalonia’s recent push for independence from Spain captured international attention and rekindled aspirations as far away as Brazil. An autonomous region within Spain with its own government and language, Catalonia held what the Spanish government said was an illegal independence referendum on Oct. 1. Police raided polling stations to disrupt the vote, but 43 percent of Catalans turned out—those against independence abstained from voting—with 92 percent voting for independence. Catalonia’s refusal to back down from independence has led Madrid to invoke constitutionally-allowed procedures to take control of its regional government. An arrest warrant on sedition and other charges has been issued against the former Catalan leader who is now in Brussels.
After Iraqi forces moved into oil-rich Kirkuk, Kurds began to head north to their capital, Erbil. Clashes erupted after Kurds living in a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq voted for independence in September. Their referendum on statehood was declared unconstitutional by the central government in Baghdad, which halted key financial transactions with the region and barred international flights to its airports. Iran and Turkey also spoke out against statehood, vewing it as a precedent that could encourage Kurdish separatists in their own countries.
Kurdish Peshmerga forces took over Kirkuk in 2014 after ISIS knocked out the Iraqi army. Instead of statehood, however, they have received conflict. Since 2003, they have been trying to forge an autonomous region in northern Iraq. Now a civil war could erupt.
Detractors contend that Kurds want to use the referendum result to force Baghdad to resolve arguments over territory and revenue from oil sales.
Communist and Muslim armed separatist movements have fought in the resource-rich island of Mindanao in the Philippines since the 1970s. Muslims, 20 percent of the island’s population, have complained of inferior treatment by the central government in Manila, which, since the 1930s, has encouraged Christian migration into Muslim regions.
Trying to create a caliphate, radical Islamist movements subjugated the Muslim city of Marawi last May. Six Philippine presidents have failed to broker peace. President Rodrigo Duterte has now imposed martial law.
The issue of separatism is complicated because it is directly related to the existence of states, change of borders and creation of new nations. International law complicates the task of preserving the territorial integrity of the state because of the contradiction between the principles of the inviolability of borders and respect for territorial integrity on the one hand, and the right of all peoples to self-determination on the other.
David Kilgour, a lawyer by profession, served in Canada’s House of Commons for almost 27 years. In Jean Chretien’s Cabinet, he was secretary of state (Africa and Latin America) and secretary of state (Asia-Pacific). He is the author of several books and co-author with David Matas of “Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for Their Organs.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.