Self-determination is an essential human right
“The Deal of the Century,” the peace plan for the Middle East revealed at the end of January by the US, has wasted one of the most important human rights principles, states the National Centre for Human Rights (NCHR): the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people.
A key principle of modern international law, this is a right that was agreed in 1966 by the UN, that decreed people are free to determine their political status and to pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
It is frequently a cause for conflict – so far in 2020 alone, following the UK’s exit from the European Union, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has denied Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s request to hold an independence referendum. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister reiterated political and moral support for the oppressed people of Indian-occupied Kashmir. And Catalan leaders and the Spanish government are presently in talks on the divisive issue of Catatonia’s independence.
Dr Neus Torbisco-Casals is a professor of international human rights law at Geneva’s Graduate Institute, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Albert Hirschman Centre for Democracy. A lawyer and human rights activist, she has worked on the defence of pro-independence Catalan leaders. Here she tells NADJA about the concept of self-determination, and how she views the Catalan conflict as a struggle for resistance against coercive attempts at building a homogeneous Spanish nation.
The interpretation of the right of peoples to self-determination has become exceptionally restrictive in comparison to other human rights, as states want to avoid constant threats of secession and destabilisation of territorial borders.
Historically, individuals have rarely been free to choose their self-identification with a given nation, and not all peoples succeeded in creating the institutional infrastructure that we call a ‘state’. The idea of the nation that predominated was more ethnic than civic. Despite dominant myths, all states have been involved in coercive politics of nation-building to legitimate themselves as fully sovereign ‘nations’.
Far from neutral, these projects favoured particular cultures and languages at the expense of the oppression of members in minority groups. Democratic criteria or intercultural fairness did not influence the drawing of current territorial borders, but rather brute power, colonialism or treaties sanctioned through royal marriages.
Such policies of forceful colonisation and cultural suppression were typically justified on paternalistic grounds, which stressed the supposed benevolence of the “great” nations over those regarded as “small” or “primitive”. Most states have sought to be identified as nations through the diffusion of a single language and culture.
The republican ideals that led to the American and French revolutions linked the concept of “people” to that of “nation”. Because republicans insisted that all political power originates from the people, it was necessary to determine the limits of collective self-identification. No one suggested that a random set of individuals living side by side without any shared identity could aspire to self-government.
At the time of the construction of the modern ‘nation state’, nationhood satisfied the need for a deeper group identification, shared belonging and mutual recognition, which over time would replace the loyalty to local and religious communities. “E Pluribus Unum”, was the motto suggested by the committee established by the United States Congress in July 1775.
Therefore, nations exist mostly politically – that is, when their members subjectively recognise themselves as part of an abstract community. Common history, language, ethnicity and territory are objective elements that are potentially important for explaining this shared belief. But none of them is indispensable. As the influential political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson indicates, nations are most of all imagined communities. So, what constitutes a nation is what people believe it is.
Needless to say, many minority groups and native peoples resisted these policies of coercive assimilation with more or less success. In contrast with states such as France, Spain failed in this homogenising endeavor, partly because resources were primarily devoted to preserving an empire rather than building a nation. Against all odds, Catalan identity, language and culture have been able to survive a long history of forceful integration attempts.
I had my entire primary education only in Spanish. I was essentially illiterate in my mother tongue until I was well into secondary school. Then, while studying law in Barcelona, most of my professors lectured in Spanish and I never came across a law book in Catalan. This is an experience very difficult to comprehend by a monolingual speaker of Spanish or English, both strong global languages due to the colonising power of these linguistic groups.
Today, in the context of a democratic society, these coercive projects of domination seem to clearly contradict both liberalism and human rights. As Catalans, our sense of belonging and mutual self-identification have survived a long history of state attempts of cultural and linguistic suppression and informs to a great extent the movement for self-determination today, which is essentially a liberal movement for emancipation from historical domination, cultural equality and political autonomy.
Instead of facing the political roots of the problem – the unequal status of the different peoples that compose Spain – and actively engaging with the political will of self-government expressed by the majority of Catalan citizens, the mainstream political parties in Madrid (both right and left) blame the rise of the independence movement on an “excess” of tolerance for cultural and linguistic diversity.
The turn towards external self-determination – that is, secession – has emerged after a long decade of political mobilisation in favor of deeper constitutional change towards shared sovereignty. These politics of devolution has been widely rejected by mainstream Spanish society and politicians. External self-determination thus emerges as the ultimate path towards meaningful self-government and resistance.
In other cases, like Kosovo, some scholars speak of an oppressed “minority” or “minority nation”, which should have the right to self-determination because of the specific form of violence Kosovans suffered during the terrible war that led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Of course, the situation of Catalonia does not fit this pattern of direct violence involving genocide. Yet political subordination and inequality, ‘soft’ domination and discrimination fall short of current standards of political legitimacy in diverse and divided societies. It is somehow paradoxical that a human right – self-determination – is constructed in a way that its exercise is conditional to a group being victim of a strong form of violence or oppression.
Catalonia, Scotland, and also the contemporary struggle of indigenous peoples for self-government and territorial sovereignty, pose a challenge to such unsatisfactory and restrictive interpretation of self-determination (that emerged in a context of de-colonisation) in the XXI century. Hence, the Catalan struggle for independence is not a unique phenomenon, but one that resembles other similar contemporary struggles for self-determination and equal recognition in democratic states.
Underlying all these struggles, there are similar questions of political justice and human rights, which cannot be underestimated. These are all conflicts that call into question the status quo of the unequal power relations between majorities and minorities. For Catalonia, neither internal self-determination nor political reform are in Madrid’s political agenda. It’s not difficult to see why secession appears as the only viable road to collective freedom and liberation.
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Featured image: Photo by Paco Rivière, 18 February 2006, Barcelona. CC BY-SA 2.0