This article is part of a Face Off series. The opposing article, “Let Them Be Free!” can also be found here.
If you’ve been tuned into the international theatre at all in recent weeks, you know that two important referendums for independence–one in Kurdish-controlled Iraq, and the other in Catalonia, the culturally-distinct northern province of Spain with incredible economic significance–have been voted on and accepted by the represented people as valid. It’s an amazing moment for democracy… and it’s not going to work.
Before I explain why I’m advocating against these referendums, I want to be very clear that I support democracy. I respect the voice of the people who use it to speak in favor of a peaceful transition of power. I firmly believe that the democratic process is fundamental to our rights as human beings and to the success of governments everywhere. That being said, current referendums for independence are shoddily constructed, politically motivated, and have forced the hand of the current regimes in each of these countries to act decisively, due to the unresolved complications that are a part of these independence moves.
According to the Brookings Institute, secessionist, unilateral referendums like the ones proposed in Iraq and Spain (who have both had previous secession votes, in 2005 and 2014, respectively) are incredibly popular within the regions themselves, but are declared illegal by the state itself, rendering them null and void in any legally-binding capacity. The Brookings Institute cites several examples of these failed referendums over the last 25 years including Transnistria of Moldova, South Ossetia (Georgia), Abkhazia (Georgia), Nagorno-Karabakh (Azerbaijan), Somaliland (Somalia), and Tamil-Eelam (Sri Lanka). Perhaps you have heard of these places. I hadn’t, until I did some serious research, and that’s because all of them are self-proclaimed as semi-autonomous, rather than having true sovereignty from their parent-state. They’re also officially unrecognized within the international community. None of these countries initiated referendums with this end in mind. They failed in their goal, and they are proof that unilateral treaties don’t achieve what they hope to.
Furthermore, Reuters pointed out in an article three months ago that the referendum in Iraq is conveniently situated right before the parliamentary elections on November 1st. Any hope for bilateral negotiations or diplomacy becomes increasingly complex when motives appear compromised. When pushed so hastily before an election cycle, these referendums look uncertain and politically motivated rather than indicative of the voice of the people. Just as U.S. political parties have drawn criticism for rushing legislation through congress when it is convenient for them, these referendums are vulnerable to valid criticism when the timing occurs as it is.
The complexity of the situation only worsens when unresolved factors, such as economic resources, are taken into account. In Iraq, the region seeking autonomous rule sits on a wealth of oil fields in Kirkuk, which the Iraqi military has seized in the last two weeks. According to the New York Times, the lack of resolution over this valuable oil reserve was one of the non-negotiable points for the Iraqi government, and the subsequent seizure by the military was to be expected.
In Catalonia, opposition leader Carlos Puigdemont has been forced to table the declaration of independence in order to open negotiations that Puigdemont has said “without which it is not possible to reach an agreed solution.” Having to debate whether or not independence is viable was clearly not the desired outcome for those seeking Catalan independence. However, the region contains such valuable Spanish resources (like the city of Barcelona) that opposition officials have been forced to take aggressive stances towards any independence movement that occurs without working out the details beforehand. Both parties are unhappy because the referendum was rushed.
Acknowledging that the quest for freedom is complicated and nuanced, the aforementioned examples are apt reasons as to why unilateral referendums are not the way to independence. Frustration, gridlock, and rising tension are the byproduct of these freedom initiatives, and if Kurdistan, Catalonia, or any other semi-autonomous region or group is to truly achieve independence, they must take another route.
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