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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…