On 10 October 2017, Catalonia issued and then immediately suspended its declaration of independence, and urged Spain to negotiate. Spain does not want to negotiate. Rather, it sought clarification as to whether or not Catalonia’s manoeuvre indeed was a declaration of independence. Such clarification was needed, according to Spain, in order to decide on an appropriate response. Subsequently, Spain announced its plan to remove certain political leaders of Catalonia and impose direct rule on the region. The recent situation in Catalonia has already been addressed on this blog (see here and here). What is striking – or perhaps not – is how little international law actually has to say on secession and indeed even on statehood. Statehood is quite simply a politically-created legal status under international law. Catalonia is yet another proof that statehood is a complicated nexus of law and politics which cannot be explained by legal rules alone. International law merely delineates the field for a political game. Just as studying football rules cannot tell us which team is going to win – Barcelona or Real – studying the law of statehood alone cannot tell us how states emerge. We need to see the game played within certain rules. In this post, I will explain the international legal framework that defines the rules of the political game and argue that the game itself may be much more influenced by comparative constitutional rather than international legal argument.
Unilateral secession between Kosovo para 81 and Quebec para 155
In the modern world, new states can only emerge at the expense of the territorial integrity of another state (see here for details). The emergence of a new state is then a political process of overcoming a counterclaim for territorial integrity. Sometimes states will waive such a claim – the United Kingdom was willing to do that with regard to Scotland. Where the parent state does not waive its claim to territorial integrity, an attempt at secession is unilateral.
The international law on unilateral secession is determined by the Kosovo Advisory Opinion para 81 and the Quebec case para 155. It follows from Kosovo para 81 that unilateral declarations of independence are not illegal per se, i.e. merely because they are unilateral, but illegality may be attached to them in situations similar to Northern Cyprus and Southern Rhodesia. This is not the case with Catalonia. Pursuant to Quebec para 155, the ultimate success of unilateral secession depends on recognition by other states. This pronouncement may sound somewhat problematic in light of international legal dogma that recognition must always be declaratory. Where independence follows from a domestic settlement (e.g. had Scotland voted for independence in 2014), recognition indeed plays little role. But the Supreme Court of Canada was quite right that recognition is much more instrumental – even constitutive – where a claim for independence is unilateral.
The Kosovo and Quebec doctrines lead us to the conclusion that where the Northern Cyprus or Southern Rhodesia type of illegality is not attached to a declaration of independence, the obligation to withhold recognition under Article 41 ARSIWA does not apply, and pursuant to Quebec para 155 foreign states may grant recognition, taking into account the legality and legitimacy of a claim for independence. This means that foreign states could recognise Catalonia, but they are under no obligation to do so. Read the rest of this entry…