Tracing the role of referenda in modern history; what fate might
As an instrument of direct democracy, the use of referenda is not limited to determining the fate of a territory and its people. It is a widely employed instrument of societal decision-making. Discussing what is happening in Catalonia, Emeritus Professor Ilter Turan takes a broader look at referenda...
What are the cond t ons under wh ch referenda are trad t onally held?
As was the case in Turkey in April, you can have a referendum on constitutional change. In certain systems, such as the one in Switzerland, referenda initiated by citizens is an instrument of ordinary politics. Similarly, in some US states and counties, it is mandatory, for example, to have a referendum to increase taxes. Its use in international politics, on the other hand, started mainly in the 20th century as a way of settling the question as to which country a particular territory should belong and an instrument of decolonization. By way of example, After WW I there were even discussions about holding a referendum in Batumi and parts of Georgia to determine to which country the area should belong. But its wider employment was discussed during the process of decolonization after WW2. In many instances, there emerged no need to hold a referendum. And yet there were instances where a referendum was later held particularly in territories ruled by the United Nations Trusteeship Council, such as Papua New Guinea or East Timor. Decolonization referenda have a place in international law.
There seems to be a d fferent role for referenda these days…
This new role has evolved in countries where a part of the population wants to break away from an existing state. This can occur in two different ways. In some instances, a referendum is part of a negotiated settlement, as has been the case in South Sudan and Kosovo. The other way is for a specific part of a country or a people to organize a referendum to determine their own fate, arguing that they have a right to self-determination. This line of argument has not found wide acceptance in international law. In instances such as Scotland and Quebec, where a given part of a country wants to break off from an established political system either because it is ethnically different or economically advantaged, the existing sovereign state has allowed the holding of a referendum. In both of these instances, the vote favored staying united. We really don’t know what would have happened if a large majority had voted for departure. Then there are the referenda that have been conducted despite being opposed by the ruling sovereign state. The recent referendum in Catalonia and the one in the Kurdish Regional Government are such examples. The sovereign state did not allow them but they were still held. The results of these are not recognized by national governments or other members of the international community.
What can be sa d about the referenda n Catalon a and Northern Iraq?
In terms of law, these referenda are illegal and not binding. But in terms of politics, they constitute watershed events. I am sure that their results will be used to justify future activity aiming to declare unilateral independence. Are there conditions under which secessionist referenda would be seen as being understandable and possibly legal? The only time when some understanding has been extended to secessionist referenda in the international community has been when the population of that region is treated particularly harshly and cruelly by the sovereign state and has suffered significant deprivation. Kosovo is an example of an autonomous region that became an independent state, It was broadly agreed by the international community that the Serbian government had treated the Kosovars harshly. While Serbia opposed a referendum, it so happened that the constitution of Serbia at the time allowed it.
What could be the poss ble consequences of an ‘unwanted’ referendum?
Referenda produce a contagious effect. If one region holds an unauthorized referendum, it encourages others to do the same. The attitude prevailing in the international community has been that referenda not authorized by an existing sovereign should not be held. The broader fear behind this other than the absence of a legal basis is the fact that this would have a tremendously destabilizing effect on the existing political geography of the world and it would initiate never-ending conflicts of a violent nature. We should not forget that referenda were held in such unusual places as Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria. Their results were ignored. Had they been recognized, you could predict the unsettling outcomes it would have produced in the post-Soviet geography. And there is no reason not to think that the contagious effect would also spread to the Russian federation itself.
What should we expect to happen n Catalon a then?
There is talk that the Catalonia referendum has inspired the northern Italian states of Lombardy and Veneto to push for their own referenda. Clearly, these will not receive much support in the international community. We also don’t know enough about the outcomes of secessions yet. If a part of a state broke off and declared unilateral independence, it first has to be recognized; if not it is an insecure independence. If a territory breaks off, what will it inherit from the mother state? In the case of Catalonia, for example, would it be a member of the EU? This question was also held for Scotland. The answer is a clear no. There may also be significant costs to secession. In Quebec, even talk of secession resulted in significant flight of capital from the region. Secession, however achieved, tends not to find favor in the international community and produces results that are problematical for those who declare independence. Catalonia is treading a costly and most likely an inconsequential road, which may well lead to nowhere.