Why do secessionist movements rarely gather international support?

Independence votes have become a fixture of the season, but what do three separate votes tell us about micro-nationalism

A still image taken from a video shot on October 1, 2017, shows protesters waving Ambazonian flags as they walk along a street in the English-speaking city of Bamenda, Cameroon. REUTERS/via Reuters TV
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Catalonia. Kurdistan. And, almost unnoticed by much of the world, Ambazonia in south-western and north-western Cameroon. In just eight days, the world map has sought to be remade by three would-be states. And secession has suddenly become this autumn's buzzword, the catwalk craze of this political season.

It could hardly be otherwise. From Sunday, the world has been focused on the independence referendum in Spain's prosperous Catalonia region. This was mostly because of the shock induced by globally broadcast images of police violence against peaceful voters in the heart of Europe. But the week before Catalonia, there were alarming threats and political muscle-flexing by Iraq, Turkey and Iran in response to the Kurdish Regional Government's independence referendum. And on the same day as the Catalan vote, Cameroon's Anglophone minority was declaring independence for Ambazonia, leading to the death of at least seven people in clashes with security forces. But Cameroon is in Central Africa and its secessionist troubles have been largely overshadowed by those of Spain and Iraq.

Even so, the three secessionist spurts have a common feature. They are contemptuously dismissed by the central governments of the countries from which they want to secede. Iraq's prime minister Haider Al Abadi said the Kurdistan Region's vote was "illegal". Ditto Spain's prime minister Mariano Rajoy for the Catalan ballot. And Cameroon cracked down militarily ​on the restive areas, disrupting internet access and curbing travel and public meetings.

Additionally, all three attempts to secede have received almost no international support. As Harvard professor Joseph Nye has trenchantly remarked, national self-determination is generally defined as the right of a people to form its own state. “But who is the ‘self’ that makes this determination?”

In the 19th century, Balkanisation followed the collapse of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. In the 20th, there was a dramatic rise in the birth of new states because of decolonisation and ethno-national mobilisation. The United Nations came into being in 1945 with just 51 member states. Today, it has 193. Meanwhile, many secessionist movements tried and failed in the last century, not least in ​the Canadian province of Quebec, and for Naga, Assam and Khalistan homelands out of India. In the 21st century, micro-nationalisms are stirring passions old and new.

So just how undesirable is secession? Is it irredeemably bad for a region to want to remove itself from the mother country? That depends. International law experts say that secession is neither a right nor necessarily illegal. The 1933 Montevideo Convention, which established the standard definition of a state under international law, sets out four criteria for statehood – possession of a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with the other states. The Convention also goes with the declarative theory of statehood, namely that a state's political existence "is independent of recognition by the other states."

By that token, it should technically not matter much if the European Union maintains its stand-offish attitude towards ​an independent ​Catalonia. And that the only international entities somewhat in its corner are Scotland, which has its own plans for breaking away from the United Kingdom; Slovenia, which emerged from the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia; and Belgium, a state split between French- and Flemish-speakers. Going by the Montevideo Convention, a p​rospective Kurdistan shouldn't care if it is shunned by almost all its neighbours and the United States too. And Ambazonia should shrug off the only acknowledgement it's received so far, which is the EU's faux-neutral plea for all sides to "respect the rule of law".

Of course, the EU, US and other countries are simply going by the conventions that have become the usual international response to politically inconvenient attempts at self-determination or managed allegiances. When he was running for office, Donald Trump said he would be willing to recognise Russia's annexation of Crimea because  "the people of Crimea, from what I've heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were."  As US president, he reversed his position on the principle of people's choice.

But the rights and wrongs of the disputed 2014 Crimean referendum are not the point. What about a people's will to be governed the way they want? It stands to reason that shifting political, economic and cultural needs should allow for altered political arrangements.

That said, there is admittedly a problem with allowing every micro-group to achieve statehood. ​It's thought that barely 10 per cent of the countries ​on​ ​today's​ world map  are homogeneous entities, so it may be calamitous to legitimise unending ethnic, linguistic and cultural fragmentation and the subsequent crystallisation into states.

In the past 25 years, nine new countries have been born. The circumstances of their birth were often bloody. Generally, they were contested. And, their reality as separate states has remained less than joyful. But then the birth of a new country has almost nothing to do with the mad hormonal rush that precedes its conception. Catalonia, Kurdistan and Ambazonia should take note.