In­de­pen­dence votes give states a split­ting headache

The Australian - - COMMENTARY - MICHAEL SEX­TON Michael Sex­ton SC is the au­thor of sev­eral books on pol­i­tics and in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions.

Re­cent votes by Iraqi Kurds and Span­ish Cata­lans on in­de­pen­dence raise the ques­tion of the right of a re­gion in an es­tab­lished state to leave to forge a sep­a­rate ex­is­tence. Across cen­turies this is­sue has cost an enor­mous amount of blood and trea­sure.

The vote or­gan­ised by the Kurds was not hin­dered by the Iraqi gov­ern­ment, which has re­fused to recog­nise its va­lid­ity. In con­trast, the Span­ish gov­ern­ment tried with con­sid­er­able bru­tal­ity to pre­vent any vote tak­ing place in its prov­ince of Cat­alo­nia. It is now up to the Cata­lan par­lia­ment as to whether it con­fronts Madrid.

The most fa­mous at­tempt at se­ces­sion in mod­ern his­tory was the es­tab­lish­ment of the Con­fed­er­acy in 1861 by US south­ern states.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment re­fused to ac­cept the dis­so­lu­tion of the Union. After four years of civil war, cost­ing more than 750,000 lives, the south failed in its bid for in­de­pen­dence.

One of the lessons of that con­flict was to demon­strate that part of an ex­ist­ing state will find it dif­fi­cult to se­cede, even when pre­pared to use force in its ef­forts, with­out the as­sis­tance of one or more for­eign na­tions.

Kosovo was able to break away from Ser­bia in the late 1990s only be­cause NATO coun­tries bombed the Ser­bian gov­ern­ment into sub­mis­sion. It is true that most of Kosovo’s in­hab­i­tants were Al­ba­nian rather than Ser­bian and did not wish to be part of Ser­bia. But there are other coun­tries in the Balkans where this eth­nic break­down con­tin­ues to ex­ist with­out any for­eign in­ter­ven­tion.

Kosovo was an un­likely can­di­date to form a sep­a­rate state, given its pop­u­la­tion of two mil­lion and a frag­ile econ­omy. Its sepa­ra­tion also in­volved NATO na­tions in an agree­ment to dis­mem­ber a le­gal en­tity in the form of Ser­bia. This is a prece­dent that most es­tab­lished coun­tries would usu­ally want to avoid.

An­other re­gion that achieved in­de­pen­dence with out­side as­sis­tance was Bangladesh, for­merly East Pak­istan, after In­dia in­ter­vened in 1971 to stop the sup­pres­sion of an in­de­pen­dence move­ment by the Pak­istani regime. There was lit­tle in­ter­na­tional sym­pa­thy for the Pak­ista­nis be­cause of the mass killings they had sanc­tioned in their east­ern prov­ince.

In the ab­sence of out­side as­sis­tance, how­ever, se­ces­sion is likely to be dif­fi­cult. The at­tempt by one of the Nige­rian prov­inces, Bi­afra, to break away in the late 1960s failed after sev­eral years of sav­age civil war. More re­cently, the Tamils in Sri Lanka con­ceded de­feat in the con­flict they had been wag­ing with the cen­tral gov­ern­ment for decades.

All of this sug­gests that there is a con­sid­er­able de­gree of chance in whether in­de­pen­dence can be suc­cess­fully at­tained. No doubt Kurds and Cata­lans are en­ti­tled to ask why should Kosovo have its in­de­pen­dence but not them. But fair­ness and eq­uity play a small role in the af­fairs of na­tions and the prospects of these two groups achiev­ing in­de­pen­dence in the im­me­di­ate fu­ture ap­pear slim.

What their ef­forts do un­der­line is the con­tin­u­ing force of na­tion­al­ism, de­spite the de­sire of or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the UN and EU to de­stroy these sen­ti­ments. Last year EU pres­i­dent Jean-Claude Juncker said: “Bor­ders are the worst in­ven­tion ever made by politi­cians.” Yet the Bri­tish vote for Brexit was a state­ment by that elec­torate in favour of na­tional sovereignty.

The Cata­lans present an alarm­ing prospect for the EU be­cause there are other se­ces­sion­ist move­ments in Europe, in­clud­ing the Flem­ish in Bel­gium. Juncker may dream of a world with­out bor­ders but some would not only like to have bor­ders but to draw them more nar­rowly than they are now.

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