What did the failure of independence referenda (Iraqi Kurdistan, Catalonia) signify for global politics?

Essays | | 15-02-2019, 09:05


On October 1, 2017, a referendum questioning whether the Catalonians desire to remain as a part of Spain or not was scheduled to be held. Pursuant to Article 2 of the Spanish Constitution pertaining to the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards despite the guarantee and recognition of right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed, as well as Article 155, which authorizes taking all measures necessary, the Constitutional Court considered the plebiscite as illegal, and invalid. According to the report of the Catalonian officials, with 43% of turnout, approximately 90% of voters supported the independence movement. (Daniel Grütters, 2017, para. 2)

As regards independence referendum of the Kurds in three provinces of Iraq, on September 25, 2017, the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government ruling Duhok, Erbil, and Sulaimaniya declared its divorce from Iraq. With 72, 61% turnout, 92.73 % of 3.3 million Kurdish and non-Kurdish voters responded Yes to the question of Do you want the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdistani areas outside the administration of the Region to become an independent state? Nevertheless, declaring unconstitutional, Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi refused to concede the referendum and its results, and ultimately they were canceled (Beirut, 2017, para. 3).

Evidently, both independence referenda manifesting in recent times failed. This paper covers an explanation for what the failure of these plebiscites poses for global politics, coupled with titles stating possible reasons for the occurrence of a referendum, and elucidating its legitimacy and legality under international instruments along with case studies of Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan referenda.


Why Referendum?

After the Second World War, referendum appears to be an essential mechanism for people around the globe to make an alteration in regard to three realms:

1. Independence referenda, such as ones emerging from the collapse of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Montenegro (2006), South Sudan (2011), Eritrea (1993), East Timor ( 1999), South Sudan (2011), Iraqi Kurdistan (2005, 2017), Quebec (1980, 1995), Scottish (2014) and etc.

2. Creation of new constitutions or amendments to the existing ones, for instance, Central and Eastern Europe, Iraq and Egypt

3. Integration to the European Union (EU), for example, Eastern European countries (2004) (Stephen Tierney, 2016, p. 105).

Independence referenda, which appear to be the manifestation of sub-state nationalism flourishing since the late 1960s despite that it had gained a notorious reputation in the first half of the 20th century, constitute a huge importance for the agenda of world politics. What about the legitimacy and adequacy of referendums? Is referendum an expedient method of making constitutionally significant decisions in settings of sub-nationalism? There are several arguments against the referendum in political theory. To exemplify, one of the opposing arguments is that a referendum is led by mostly elite or executive, and no room is left for legislation to have a say. As next criticism, having an engagement with voters only in times of voting, it is deemed to lack the discussion and deliberation of issues. In accordance with this claim, whether citizens clearly comprehend the context of a referendum question is vague. Last widely accepted drawback of a plebiscite is that it functions in favor of majority interests, not dissenting individuals or minorities, which the point of democracy is to protect both of them. Despite the deficiencies, why a wide practice of referendum holds its presence for the independence at present time? The response is that the referendum ensures a powerful validation mechanism for political claims (Stephen Tierney, 2016, p. 106).


Provision of Right to Self-Determination and Secession in International Law

As it is illustrated in the introduction, in both Spain and Iraq, the referenda were declared unconstitutional, and violent measures were taken against the governing bodies of the Kurds and Catalonians. These were the actions implemented in the framework of the domestic law. What about the international law? Is obtaining a veto from a parent or host state sufficient to end a democratic movement of a group of people? Do referenda have a support in the international realm?

The unilateral declaration of independence, and therefore the organization of referendum have been grounded on the sub-state entities’ right to the self-determination enshrined in the United Nations Charter. Respect for self-determination of peoples has been regarded as a core purpose of Article 1.2 of the UN Charter. Being considered as one of the essential principals of the international law, the right to self-determination was also included in ‘Declaration of Friendly Relations’ of 1970 adopted by the UN General Assembly, Article 1.1 of the ‘United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’ (1966), and the ‘United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ’(1994 The free identification of political status and entailing respect of each state to it as their duty constitute the essentials of the self-determination (Muharremi, 2008, p. 14).


Practical application of Right to Self-Determination and Secession in International Law

In spite of frequent reference to self-determination in principle, the application of the concept for ethnic or national minorities in practice is of ambiguity. The main question should be addressed is how the right to self-determination is exercised. Another equally important question is: does self-determination justify the secession of a sub-state entity under international instruments? The aforementioned ambiguity stems from the recognition of the construct of self-determination in two divergent aspects: internal and external. The former authorizing a minority to gain some level of cultural, political and social freedom within the frame of reference of a “parent” state turns out to be the most embraced form by the international law. The latter has generally been applied in the context of decolonization after the Second World War in accordance with UN Declarations on the ‘Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries of 1960’ and the ‘Definition of Aggression’. As a result, external self-determination granted to former colonies enabled them to secede from the imperial power. Whether sub-state entities have a right to external self-determination is controversial. According to the Canadian Supreme Court, external self-determination recognizing a right to the independence may be bestowed only in a case that people of a sub-state entity experience subjugation, exploitation, oppression, colonization and the like (Moore, 1998, p. 3). The interpretation of the Friendly Relations Declaration also acknowledges the remedial secession as a last option, if human rights are denied, and minority rights are violated (Frank Dietrich, 2010).


Brief History of Catalonia

In 1469, the matrimony of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castle led to the unification of Aragon and Castile, maintaining existing borders, institutions, and currency. Nonetheless, after the colonization of America by Spain, Aragon began to lose its political power. With the suppression of Philip V of Bourbon in the 18th century, rights and the essential political instutions of the Catalonians were banned, and the merge of Aragon into Castile was materialized. During the Second Spanish Republic, the self-governance of Catalonia was restored. After the death of Franco and its regime, the internal autonomy and the official use of its language was specified in the new democratic constitution of Spain (Wikipedia).

With almost 7.5 million people, Catalonia makes up 15% of the whole population of Spain. Being an economic base of Spain, it accounts for 20 % of the whole GDP of the country (Bosch, S. ,2018, para. 10). With its own parliament, police force, culture and official language, Catalonia enjoys autonomy in internal affairs. However, the opinion polls illustrate that the majority of the Catalonians desire to secede from Spain because of their conclusion that they unnecessarily pay high rates of taxes and bear austerity policies for a country that do not share the same identity.


Brief History of Iraq

Inhibiting 25 and 35 million Kurdish, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Armenia almost account for the whole volume of the Kurds over the world. Regarding the number of population, the Kurds are of high importance in the Middle East, which are the fourth huge ethnic group (Who are the Kurds? 2017, para.1). Following the World War I and the defeat of Ottoman Empire, the Treaty of Sevres in 1920 was reached, which stipulated the formation of Iraq, Syria and Kuwait and left an option for the establishment of a Kurdish state. Nevertheless, setting modern Turkey boundaries, the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 neglected the provision for an independent Kurdish state and required them to be considered a minority in their corresponding states. This was the onset of the prosecution and oppression of the Kurds and their independence attempts lasting until the present time (Britannica, T. E. 2018).

In Iraq, where is home to 6 million Kurds, since the Kurds were regarded as a risk to the Arab identity and the national unity of Iraq by country authorities, they became subject to a systematic marginalization and oppression since 1921 until 2003, especially in the ruling years of Saddam Hussein. His policies with regard to de-Kurdification, deportation and ethnic cleansing of the Kurds were perfectly implemented during the 1970s and 1980s. Attacking Qalladze in 1974, and the massacre of 8000 Barzani Kurds are notorious examples of his violent policies (Hama, 2017, para 12). However, the revolts and stubbornness of the Kurds had some positive implications: In constitutions of both 1958 and 1970, the Kurds were donated equal status with Arabs, the Article 3 and 5 of both constitutions correspondingly stipulated the presence of two nations in Iraq. Additionally, pursuant to the new constitution in 1970, the Kurdish language was accepted as an official one in places, where the Kurds reside in (Hama, 2017, para 14). Iraq’s transition to the system of parliamentary democracy as a result of the US invasion in 2001 caused significant positive alterations in the life of the Iraqi Kurds. Currently, the Kurds are legally ruled by the Kurdistan Regional Government established in 1970 (Iraqi Kurdistan, n.d). With its own parliament, official language and the military force called Peshmerga, Kurdistan governs the region in the form of parliamentary democracy.


May External Self-Determination Be Crafted in Cases of Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan?

Both Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan perfectly fit the statehood requirements of the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States: 1. a permanent population, 2. a defined territory, 3. government, 4. capacity to enter into relations with the other states (2018, Wikipedia). Nevertheless, since their circumstances are not consistent with the conditions specified for external self-determination (decolonization instances and subjugation), they cannot obtain an independent state status without the consent of “parent” state. It is an undeniable fact that both ethnic groups, particularly the Kurds have been subject to discrimination, oppression and violence in the past, but it does not justify their secession because of their enjoyment of internal self-determination rights today.


What did the Failure of Independence Referenda (Iraqi Kurdistan, Catalonia) Signify for Global Politics?

The discussion in the preceding paragraphs clearly illustrates that strict and tight conditions for the secession not only in the domestic law, but also in the international law trigger to the failure of independence referenda. The crucial question to be asked is: what is the reason for such a strictness or tightness. The response appears to reside in the implications of World War II. To put in more detail, after the catastrophic years of 1939 and 1945, in order to deter the occurrence of a similar dilemma, countries holding structural powers and international organizations avoid redrawing the borders of the existing countries, particularly ones in Europe. It is because that the declaration of independence of one sub-state entity opens a legitimate room for others to claim the same. To exemplify, it is hard to dissent that the secession attempt of Crimea from Ukraine has been grounded on the precedent of Kosovo whose independence movement has been successful.

The cautious approach of some powerful states and international institutions toward Catalonia referendum can be described in the following examples. Angela Markel, who is the German chancellor, stated, “We hope there are solutions found on the basis of the Spanish constitution”. A similar statement came from Jens Stoltenberg, who is NATO’s secretary general: “the issue must be resolved within Spain’s constitutional order”. These suggestions are implicit manifestations of opposition to the plebiscites (Hehir, A., 2018, para.2)

With regards to the plebiscite in Iraq, the Turkish Prime Minister stated, “we believe that this decision is wrong and lacks responsibility…it will be followed by problems”. Another harsh criticism is from Sigmar Gabriel: "Redrawing the lines of the state is not the right way and could exacerbate an already difficult and unstable situation, in Erbil as well as Baghdad” (Rudaw, 2017, para.30). Stating, “We support a unified, stable and a federal Iraq”, US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert explicitly announced their position (Rudaw, 2017, para.38)

All quotes aforementioned demonstrate the international political stability preserved after the World War II to some extent is of huge importance for the world community and leading states, and they will put all their efforts for its further maintenance.



To sum up, this paper discussed internal and external self-determination and secession with reference to Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan. The outcome-driven is that only the grant of internal self-determination to the aforementioned sub-state entities is in accordance with international law. The failure of referenda exhibited that with the purpose of maintaining international stability and peace, the majority of countries are ready to take all kind of measures to prevent separations, including tightening the secession policies.




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2. Who are the Kurds? (2017, October 31). Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29702440

3. Systematic Oppression of Kurdish Society in Iraq between 1925 and 2003. (2017, June 06). Retrieved from http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/06/06/systematic-oppression-of-kurdish-society-in-iraq-between-1925-and-2003/

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11. Robert Muharremi. (2008). Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence: Self-Determination and Sovereignty Revisited. Review of Central and East European Law 33.

12. Frank Dietrich. (2010). The status of Kosovo – reflections on the legitimacy of secession http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/egp.v3i2.1983

13. Margaret Moore. (1998). National Self-Determination and Secession. DOI: 10.1093/0198293844.001.0001

14. Stephen Tierney. (2016). Should the People Decide?’ Referendums in a Post-Sovereign Age, the Scottish and Catalonian Cases. Netherlands Journal of Legal Philosophy doi: 10.5553/NJLP/.000050.



About the author:

Narmin Zeynalli is the undergraduate student at ADA University (Azerbaijan). She also studied at Koc University (Turkey) on exchange.