Home Posts tagged "referendum"

Secession and Self-determination in Western Europe: The Case of Catalonia

Published on October 18, 2017        Author: 

This presentation is based in part on the Legal Opinion by an International Commission of Legal Experts addressing the question of Catalonia: The Will of the People and Statehood. The Commission was composed of Professors Marc Weller (UK ), John Dugard (South Africa), Richard Falk (USA) and Ana Stanic (Slovenia). Although the Opinion was commissioned by Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, its findings represent the agreed and independent views of the authors. While based on the Opinion, which will be published in due course, this contribution does not purport to give an authoritative rendering of it, but instead represents the views of the author.

This contribution assesses the claim to statehood of Catalonia, addressing in turn:

  • The criteria for statehood;
  • The legality or otherwise of unilateral declarations of independence;
  • The issue of self-determination;

Objective criteria of Statehood

Catalonia can easily meet the classical, objective criteria for statehood. It has a clearly defined territory of some 32,000 sq km, featuring clearly defined boundaries. Its stable population numbers around 7.5 million, far in excess of many recently independent states in Europe and beyond. It is the most economically viable region when compared to other parts of Spain. Even under autonomy within Spain, Catalonia has exhibited most of the functions of effective government.

Whether Catalonia would in fact exercise fully independent powers of government can only be assessed if and when it decides to implement its declaration of independence, at present suspended in application. Catalonia has generated a substantive transitional law, to apply pending the adoption of a new constitution once independence proceeds. That law would assign all public powers to the new state, including foreign affairs powers (‘capacity to enter into international relations’). Hence, Catalonia is, at least potentially, capable of statehood.

Negative subjective criterion

In addition to the classical, objective criteria, there are negative and positive subjective criteria of statehood. The negative criterion, confirmed by the International Court of Justice in the Kosovo Opinion, demands that statehood must not be tainted by jus cogens violations. There is no suggestion of such conduct by Catalonia in this instance.

First positive subjective criterion: A manifestation of popular will

The positive subjective criteria come in two guises: first, there must be an act of will of the population, and second, that will must be enacted through a declaration of independence.

Any change in the social contract of a political community as dramatic as an act of secession from the established legal order must be based on the will of the people. Ordinarily, this would take the form of a referendum, although in some instances (dissolution of Czechoslovakia), concurrent decisions of the elected national and regional assemblies have been taken to be sufficient.

The international legal requirements for a valid referendum are only emerging. Still, in analogy to emerging standards on democratic governance, at least within Western Europe, it is clear that there must be a free and fair campaign and a transparent and open balloting process. In this instance, any intimidation came from the side of the Spanish government, including arrests, raids and other measures against pro-independence campaigners and officials. Read the rest of this entry…


Populist International Law? The Suspended Independence and the Normative Value of the Referendum on Catalonia

Published on October 12, 2017        Author: 

In his speech before the Catalan regional parliament on 10 October 2017, the Catalan President Carles Puigdemont suspended a declaration of independence but stated that the referendum of 1st October gave the Catalans a mandate for creating a sovereign state. This post examines whether this assertion is borne out by international law. I submit that neither the Catalans and their leaders nor the central government act in an international law-free zone.

A declaration of independence would not violate international law

The International Court of Justice, in its Kosovo opinion of 2010, found that a unilateral declaration of independence does “not violate general international law” (para. 122) ─ if such a declaration is not “connected with the unlawful use of force or other egregious violations of norms of general international law, in particular those of a peremptory character (jus cogens)” (para. 81; see also paras 84, 119-121 on non-violation). The ICJ in that Opinion inverted the legal question placed before it (which had been whether the declaration of independence was “in accordance with international law” (para. 1)). The Court had also shied away from saying anything meaningful on secession (as opposed to the speech act of declaring independence). In result, the Advisory Opinion came out as a parsimonious if not meagre restatement of the law.

Disproportionate use of force (police and military) is prohibited by international law

However meek, the Kosovo Advisory Opinion is relevant for Catalonia also with regard to the prohibition on the use of force. The Court here said that “unlawful use of force” would taint a declaration of independence and make it violative of international law (para. 81), but did not say when such resort to force would indeed be “unlawful”. Also, the ICJ did not say whose use of force although it probably had the separatists themselves in mind. Read the rest of this entry…