Self-de­ter­mi­na­tion is an in­alien­able right

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The Iraqi Kurds’ ref­er­en­dum sev­eral weeks ago won an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity in favour of in­de­pen­dence, but was re­jected by much of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, es­pe­cially by the US and the Iraqi gov­ern­ment. Self-de­ter­mi­na­tion, how­ever, is un­stop­pable be­cause it is a core of hu­man rights. No power can in­def­i­nitely pre­vent any group from even­tu­ally re­al­iz­ing its na­tional as­pi­ra­tions, re­gard­less of how dif­fi­cult it might be and how long it takes.

The Kurdish re­solve, along with many other eth­nic and cul­tural groups, to achieve po­lit­i­cal in­de­pen­dence must be seen both in the con­text of their decades-old as­pi­ra­tions for self-de­ter­mi­na­tion and the ar­bi­trary bor­ders that were drawn re­gard­less of eth­nic­ity, his­tory, cul­ture, and re­li­gious af­fil­i­a­tions, largely by the vic­to­ri­ous pow­ers in the wake of World War II.

More­over, although glob­al­iza­tion has brought na­tions closer to one an­other, it has at the same time kin­dled the need to pre­serve the cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal unique­ness of many eth­nic na­tion­al­i­ties who are fear­ful of los­ing the na­tional iden­tity they cher­ish, which dis­tin­guishes them from other sects and eth­nic­i­ties.

The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, led by ma­jor pow­ers in­clud­ing the US and the EU, have thus far failed to ac­cept the in­evitabil­ity that many eth­nic groups will per­sist in the fight for their right to in­de­pen­dence. Deny­ing them that right can only lead to vi­o­lent con­flicts and re­gional in­sta­bil­ity.

Since the end of World War II, the birth of new na­tion­states has nearly quadru­pled. When the United Na­tions was cre­ated in 1945, there were only 51 in­de­pen­dent coun­tries that be­came mem­ber states of the UN, which has grown to 193 coun­tries at the present. In ad­di­tion, there are three other na­tion-states that have dif­fer­ent des­ig­na­tions. The Holy See and Pales­tine are UN ob­server states, and though Kosovo is not recog­nised by the UN, it is recog­nised by over 100 mem­ber states.

Since 1990, some 34 new coun­tries have been es­tab­lished (14 of them di­rectly re­sult­ing from the dis­so­lu­tion of the USSR in 1991). I ven­ture to say that given the grow­ing num­ber of eth­nic groups who are sworn to achieve self­de­ter­mi­na­tion, an ad­di­tional 10-15 new coun­tries will de­clare in­de­pen­dence by the year 2030.

Self-de­ter­mi­na­tion is be­com­ing an na­tional quest born out of the need ever more to be free, po­tent as an in­creas­ing num­ber of eth­nic groups find them­selves with no hope for a bet­ter fu­ture while be­ing de­nied the right to live their lives as they see fit. As the late Pres­i­dent Rea­gan ob­served, “free­dom is one of the deep­est and no­blest as­pi­ra­tions of the hu­man spirit. Peo­ple, world­wide, hunger for the right of self-de­ter­mi­na­tion, for those in­alien­able rights that make for hu­man dig­nity and progress.”

There are many groups that seek self-de­ter­mi­na­tion that have gone fur­ther than the Kurdish Iraqis have, such as Cat­alo­nia which has al­ready de­clared in­de­pen­dence, and many oth­ers who are in var­i­ous stages in their march to­ward self-rule.

Cat­alo­nia has been fight­ing for in­de­pen­dence from Spain since the mid-17th cen­tury, mo­ti­vated by their cul­ture and his­tory. Their modern wave of sep­a­ratism has in­ten­si­fied since the death of dic­ta­tor Fran­cisco Franco and the adop­tion of a new Span­ish con­sti­tu­tion in 1978 ac­knowl­edg­ing a right to au­ton­omy.

The Pales­tini­ans have been seek­ing in­de­pen­dence for more than seven decades, and will re­main re­lent­less un­til they re­al­ize their na­tional as­pi­ra­tions. In this par­tic­u­lar case, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity is fully sup­port­ive of the Pales­tini­ans’ quest and will un­doubt­edly con­tinue to push for that end, re­gard­less of Is­rael’s strong ob­jec­tions.

Kosovo was the cen­tre of the me­dieval Ser­bian Em­pire. From the mid-15th cen­tury to the early 20th cen­tury, it was ruled by the Ot­toman Em­pire. Sub­se­quently it was in­cor­po­rated into Ser­bia, and eth­nic ten­sions flared up be­tween the pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim eth­nic Al­ba­ni­ans and the largely East­ern Ortho­dox Serbs in Kosovo. This de­vel­op­ment led to a war in 1998-1999 be­tween Kosovo and the Repub­lic of Ser­bia, which ex­acted among the Al­ba­nian pop­u­la­tion a death toll of 11,000 and cre­ated 1.5 mil­lion refugees.

There are many other eth­nic groups who have for cen­turies been part and par­cel of their coun­try of res­i­dence and have now been awak­ened anew, de­mand­ing to ex­er­cise their right to in­de­pen­dence.

Scot­land joined the UK in 1707 un­der the pre­tenses of eco­nomic pros­per­ity. Mi­nor and ma­jor re­bel­lions dot­ted the pe­riod from the union, but did not re­ceive much trac­tion un­til leg­isla­tive move­ments for “home rule” be­gan in the 1880s. Over the years, the move­ment turned into one for in­de­pen­dence, which has been met most re­cently with a failed ref­er­en­dum for in­de­pen­dence in 2014. An­other vote is likely to oc­cur once the terms of Brexit are for­malised, demon­strat­ing that even after 300 years, na­tional as­pi­ra­tions are still alive and well.

Que­bec’s in­de­pen­dence from Canada has been de­bated se­ri­ously since the late 1960s on ac­count of lin­guis­tic and cul­tural dif­fer­ences. There were ref­er­en­dums in 1980 and 1995, and the Clar­ity Act (recog­nis­ing a vote by any prov­ince to leave Canada) was passed in 2000. Although re­cently the sovereignty move­ment has splin­tered, the sen­ti­ment for in­de­pen­dence con­tin­ues to res­onate.

There are other groups who as­pire to be in­de­pen­dent, in­clud­ing in Ti­bet, Tai­wan, Hong Kong, Bavaria, Venice, Flan­ders, Basque Coun­try, Transnis­tria, and the Malay Mus­lims of South­ern Thai­land, among many oth­ers. To be sure, the move­ment for in­de­pen­dence will not stop with the Iraqi Kurds or Cat­alo­nia, and soon the Iraqi Sun­nis’ as­pi­ra­tion for in­de­pen­dence will gain greater mo­men­tum, along with the Syr­ian Kurds and po­ten­tially Pres­i­dent As­sad’s Alaw­ite sect, as Syria’s di­vi­sion along sec­tar­ian lines ap­pears to be all but in­evitable.

Nearly ev­ery new state that was cre­ated after the sec­ond World War was not es­tab­lished vol­un­tar­ily by the colo­nial pow­ers un­der which they had been gov­erned. They all had to strug­gle for decades, of­ten re­sort­ing to vi­o­lence and war to fi­nally re­alise their po­lit­i­cal in­de­pen­dence.

The philoso­pher Ju­dith But­ler put it suc­cinctly when she stated that, “Pop­u­lar sovereignty has to be given by a peo­ple to it­self, [em­pha­sis added] and this is the im­por­tant mean­ing of self-de­ter­mi­na­tion.”

In­deed, by what right can the US or the EU dic­tate the Iraqi Kurds’ destiny and pre­vent them from es­tab­lish­ing a state of their own pre­sum­ably to safe­guard Iraq’s unity and pre­vent vi­o­lent con­flict, when in fact only the op­po­site will hap­pen. The same can be said about Cat­alo­nia and many other sep­a­ratist groups. Now is the time for the former colo­nial pow­ers to rec­tify their his­toric blun­ders, and fa­cil­i­tate rather than foil many groups’ drive to re­alise their nat­u­ral right.

The hypocrisy, par­tic­u­larly of the US and the EU—who pro­mote hu­man rights, free­dom, and democ­racy—is now on full dis­play, as they were the first to re­ject the re­sults of the Kurdish ref­er­en­dum and refuse to rec­og­nize Cat­alo­nia’s de­clared in­de­pen­dence.

It is time for the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, led by the ma­jor pow­ers, to re­al­ize that they can­not stop the pow­er­ful move­ment of many eth­nic groups that seek in­de­pen­dence, only be­cause it does not fit their scheme in any given re­gion.

Self-de­ter­mi­na­tion is not a gift to be awarded by the graces of any govern­ing au­thor­ity; it is an in­her­ent right that ev­ery eth­nic, re­li­gious, and cul­tural group is en­ti­tled to ex­er­cise.

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