T P Sreenivasan
India’s early experience of dealing with Pakistani aggression in Kashmir and the subsequent developments shaped India’s approach to the concept of self-determination, which is cautious, restricted and clearly defined.
While we have subscribed to one of the purposes of the UN Charter as developing friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples’, India placed reservations on Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
It reads: “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right, they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”
Initially, the Indian position was challenged by many legal experts, but over the years, the Indian position that self-determination applies only to territories under alien or colonial domination came to be accepted as fundamental to its interests.
The question of definition of self-determination is an annual ritual at the Third Committee of the UN when a Pakistani resolution comes up for consideration with India and Pakistan setting forth their positions.
Pakistan usually makes the point that it thinks that Jammu and Kashmir is indeed under alien or colonial domination and therefore, it is entitled to self-determination through a plebiscite and the matter ends.
But the world is deeply divided on this issue, as large countries are attached to the view that self-determination will not apply to integral parts of states and smaller countries insist that all people are entitled to such a right.
Countries like Liechtenstein have taken initiatives to press the point with the support of small states and the larger nations have resisted any further strengthening of the right to self-determination.
The Slovenian Case
I recall how my repeated demarches to the Foreign Minister of Slovenia to vote against self-determination in a resolution in the UN resulted in the Slovenian delegate being absent at the time of the vote. That was a friendly gesture, as it was explained to me that if he was present, he would have had to vote for it! Slovenia, with a population of two million, had no fear of a move for self-determination in the country.
India generally reacts negatively to moves for secession on the ground of self-determination, but has accepted division of countries as a solution to ethnic conflicts.
Problem in Catalonia
India faces the same dilemma in the most recent cases of Catalonia, which seeks to break away from Spain and Kurdistan, which wants to become independent of Iraq.
Spain without Barcelona is unthinkable to most people and Kurds are believed to have sufficient autonomy to safeguard their interests. People are deeply dismayed by the scenes of chaos and violence in Barcelona, a beautiful and prosperous city with international fame.
The Catalan government’s decision to hold an independence referendum and Spain’s ruthless action to prevent it are ominous for the region and Europe at large.
The tragedy is that Spain’s actions, witnessed by the world on television have helped the Catalan case, though nobody believes that secession will be permitted.
If it was a referendum accepted by Spain and Catalonia, the situation would have been different. In the present case, a right derived as a reaction to imperialism will not receive much support. A solution will be for Catalonia to get a higher level of autonomy than the one it already enjoys.
Catalans are not colonised, oppressed or discriminated against and the argument that a distinct cultural identity or having to bear a disproportionate part of the national budget are not strong reasons for secession. By this token, many prosperous regions with distinct cultures, which are now supporting poorer regions in the same country will seek secession, resulting in chaos.
If the Catalans indeed declare independence as they threaten to do immediately, Spain’s reaction will be to come down on them like a ton of bricks and withdraw the autonomy of the province. Catalans believe that Spain is already guilty of not allowing the region the extent of autonomy promised in the Spanish constitution and their aim might be to secure more autonomy by demanding independence.
Referendum in Kurdistan
By a sheer coincidence, another referendum took place in Kurdistan in September.
But the process was smooth as Iraq did not seek to interfere, perhaps because it was felt that the Kurds have been suffering from the turbulence in the region, and that they have a case for seeking some stability and development.
Iraq itself has not been in a position to help the autonomous region in any manner and the Kurds have been fending for themselves. But secession is unlikely to be permitted as Baghdad wishes to retain control and Turkey and Iran are opposed to an independent Kurdistan, with immense implications for their own Kurd populations.
The likelihood of a civil war between the Arabs and the Kurds should be a strong deterrent to moves for an independent Kurdistan. The Kurds in Iraq already enjoy near-independence with their own Parliament, army and security forces and they will be pushing the region into an ethnic war, without securing any particular benefit for themselves.
Both Turkey and Iran have made it clear that they will oppose Kurdish independence by taking military measures such as exercises and threatening to suffocate an independent Kurdistan by cutting off Kurdish oil pipelines.
Countries like the USA and Russia, engaged in fighting the Islamic State do not seem to be interested in a Kurdish distraction, though some believe that the referendum took place with US support. Israel is the only country to support the Kurds, not because they love the Kurds more, but because they love Iraq and Iran less.
The champions of secession, whether in Spain or in Iraq merely have to look at the present plight of the 193rd member of the United Nations.
More than the right to self-determination, it was the persistent conflict that prompted the international community to carve out South Sudan. But within three years, the newest state in the world became its newest failed state. The merit of remaining united within established states, in spite of differences, is evident, whatever may be the reasons for Catalonia and Kurdistan to seek solutions to their problems through secession.
Indian reservations on the right of all peoples to the right to self-determination have become universal except for a few regions of the world. With the happy culmination of the decolonisation process, the championship of self-determination in independent states will lead only to chaos and strife. The Catalan and Kurdish cases may eventually reinforce the Indian stand.
T P Sreenivasan is a retired diplomat from the Indian Foreign Service. Among his assignments were India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, India’s Governor at International Atomic Energy Agency based in Geneva. He was also India’s High Commissioner to Fiji during the first coup in 1987. He is currently Director General of the Kerala International Centre.
Mr Sreenivasan is the Guest Speaker at the Eight Annual Saint Mother Teresa Interfaith Meeting on November 26, 2017 at Christ the King Church, Mount Roskill, Auckland and the Tenth Annual Indian Newslink Indian Business Awards on November 27, 2017 at Sky City Convention Centre.