When Americans hear the word “secession” and think about the Civil War. That’s not the case in much of the world. Indeed, secession has become a hot topic of debate on the world stage, as more and more regions push for autonomy or full-blown independence.
As they do, two precepts of international law and liberal norms are coming into conflict. The first is that borders are inviolate and territorial integrity of existing nations must be respected. The second is that people have the right to self-determination for their own systems of government.
Recently two nations have been pushed to the brink of constitutional crisis over independence referendums staged by regional governments.
Increasing talk of a secessionist movement in Kurdistan
In Iraq, the Kurdish regional government staged a vote to officially confirm their longheld goal of creating an independent Kurdish state.
Lumped together with Sunni and Shia Arabs by arbitrary colonial borders, the Kurds are one of the largest ethnic groups in the middle east. For decades, they have been enmeshed in on-and-off wars against and across their homeland. It is divided and spread out in between Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran.
From 1986-1989 Kurds were subject to genocide by Iraq’s military, then led by Saddam Hussein. More recently, the fight against the Islamic State ISIS both delayed and confirmed the desire for independence.
While the Arab-dominated Iraqi Army fled ISIS advances, the Kurds valiantly fought and successfully expelled the jihadists from much of Northern Iraq. In so doing, they also seized control of cities like Kirkuk that are disputed between Kurds and the central government.
The Kurdish government insists the referendum is just a starting point for negotiations, including over the disputed border. Baghdad has responded with threats of military action, though these are mostly hollow threats given the dominance of Kurdish peshmerga militias in the region.
Turkey, wary of its own long-simmering Kurdish insurgency, has also threatened to intervene.
In Europe, another secessionist movement in Catalonia appears to be in bloom
Across the Mediterranean, Spain is facing a similar conflict, albeit one with a smaller risk of civil war – even in spite of skirmishings of political violence surrounding the regional Catalonia government’s vote for independence over the weekend.
The central government in Madrid has branded the referendum illegal, and staged dramatic arrests and police raids on local government officials participating in the vote. Ballot papers were seized, and the independence referendum was declared illegal by Spain’s constitution court. But leaders of the Catalonian regional government in Barcelona remains defiant in seeking a referendum.
On Tuesday, King Felipe VI of Spain stepped into the political crisis and accused the region’s separatist leaders of “inadmissible disloyalty” and of creating “a situation of extreme gravity” that threatened the country’s constitution and unity.
Span’s hardball tactics in seeking to suppress the vote may have succeeded only in driving more Catalonians into the arms of the independence movement.
Are there future secessionist movements on the horizon?
Regional secession and independence movements have closely watched a handful of referendums come close in recent years. In 1995, in a surprise result, voters in Quebec narrowly rejected leaving Canada. In 2014, Scotland rejected independence from the United Kingdom, 55 to 45 percent.
In both of those cases, the central government had given its consent and agreed to respect the result. It was a calculated gamble to respect the popular desire for a referendum.
In both cases, the gamble worked. Given the chance to freely vote on their future, Quebec and Scotland got cold feet and decided to stick with the status quo.
It was a defeat for the network of would-be nations around the world, who often coordinate with each other to advance new strategies and legal arguments.
Now, if Catalonia were to succeed in breaking away from Spain, it would certainly send a ripple across the map of Europe.
One of Catalonia’s grievances against the poorer remainder of Spain is that their taxes flow in one direction: Out. A similar issue bedevils Italy’s north, which has resented political dominance by the poorer south. A new breakaway nation, possibly with its capital in Venice, has been proposed by some far-right northern parties.
Other long-simmering regional tension have been managed without such drastic steps, to a greater to lesser degree. In Belgium, the Dutch-speaking Flanders and the French-speaking Wallonia have long sought a divorce. In Germany, some sneer at the culturally and politically distinct region of Bavaria, and would rather it go its own way.
More ominously – from the perspective of unionists – are how tensions over Brexit in the United Kingdom could lead to a second Scottish independence referendum. Scots, you see, would prefer to stay in the European Union.
Let a few dozen separatist movements bloom?
Back in the Middle East, an independent Kurdish state carved out of Iraq would redraw borders with neighbors in the strife-torn region. The Kurdish-dominated state of Rojava in next-door Syria has already achieved de facto independence.
Though there are differences between the two governments, a merger is not entirely unthinkable. That would also bring added pressure on Turkey to consent to a Kurdish reunification by ceding the southeast portion of the country to a new Kurdistan.
It wouldn’t be such a bad thing for governments to face a little more competition to retain the loyalty of their citizens. There are currently 193 members of the United Nations, – a number that has gone up in recent years. Nothing about that number is set in stone.
In some ways, technology, communications, and trade have made the flag that flies less and less important. That increased freedom and integration has spurred calls for more independent countries.
Because it would presumably exist within the European Union, Catalonia wouldn’t have to change its currency or close its borders: The free flow of goods and services would continue unimpeded.
And even in the Middle East, an independent Kurdish state could take advantage of organizations like the U.N., the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund.
This is the paradox of globalization: It has unleashed forces for decentralization and secession (let’s call it “petite nationalism”), by making it possible for newly independent nations to join a globalist world. It allows the citizens of these nations to carry on with their business as usual.
And within this order – let’s call it “grand liberal globalism,” why not add some more new national flags to the current lineup?
(Two boys tie a Catalan Pro-independence flag, known as ‘Estelada’ to the net at the Barcelonea beach on October 3, 2017, as a regional general strike to protest against the violence that marred the October 1 referendum vote. According to Catalonia’s government more than two million people voted on Sunday in the referendum of Catalonia, which the government in Madrid had declared illegal and undemocratic. Officials said that 90% of votes cast were for independence. The Catalan government’s spokesman said that an estimated 770,000 votes were lost as a result of 400 polling stations being raided by Spanish police. Hundreds of citizens were injured during the police crackdown. Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)