Successive secession

Dünya Executive - - COVER PAGE - Ilter TURAN Columnist

Tracing the role of referenda in modern history; what fate might

await Catalonia?

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Turkey

© PressReader. All rights reserved.