Rights are not absolute

Letter in reply to a nationalist’s desires

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Freedom: Self-determination is a right, says the President of the Asamblea Nacional Catalana. An activist campaigning group whose members are active on executive politics and key to mobilisation logistics, i.e. they are “the people”.

No fundamental right is unlimited or free of controversy. Any rights must be balanced with the rights of others and the community’s safety and stability. In the case of the self determination rigth, the dilemma lies in determining the circumstances which justify such extremes as independence or secession.

In international law, secession and self-determination are not even remotely synonymous. Secession is categorically proscribed and self-determination is contemplated, bar colonial situations, only through self-government within an existing state. The latter occurred in Spain when the 1978 constitution, which recognises the diversity of the country’s national identities, was adopted with overwhelming popular support. Just ten years later, a federal-type system with a very high degree of local and fiscal autonomy was in place. Indeed, the right to self-government and identity rights were so thoroughly guaranteed that the pro-independence Catalan government had to acknowledge in its 2014 White Paper on national transition that ‘neither EU nor international law has any provision for a procedure […] to convene a consultation of the sort the majority of the people in Catalonia are demanding.’

Which brings us to one of Mrs López’s more reasonable desires: one day an international conference should be convened to review the right to self-determination and establish the criteria needed to implement it. Although she informs us that these criteria will need to be broader —(alas) she fails to say what these criteria might be— than the ‘all-too Canadian’ Clarity Act, which recognises the possibility of secession provided that the decision is not unilateral, has the support of a clear majority and respects the rights of minorities, which may involve the redefinition of borders.

Anything beyond Canada’s solution, however, would mean granting the right to absolutely any national group or simply to any group capable of organising itself and performing a political function. Without regulation, both proposals are unacceptable if the consequences are taken to extremes. There cannot be as many states as the thousands of cultural nations which co-exist in the world; nor would it be tolerable to allow non-historical groups to claim the right to set up states of their own. This would only lead to anarchy, marginalisation and instability.

In politics, everything depends on the circumstances.

In Scotland, what may be dissolved is a union, there exists a linguistically and demographically homogeneous population, and no territorial claims are being made.

In Quebec, consensual secession is deemed acceptable and the current borders, questionable. But Quebec, which also has a linguistically and demographically homogeneous population, is the result of annexation following a bloody colonial war and the subsequent incorporation of other federal territories.

Spain was founded by the union of other kingdoms now extinct. Catalan and Basque are the mother tongues of only 30% of the inhabitants of the two Autonomous Communities; the population originally from other regions now living in them stands at 60%; and both pro-independence movements harbour territorial ambitions over parts of Spain and France. It is hard to see things in the same light.

So resisting secession when declared unilaterally, there is no clear majority, there are no defined borders and faced with a monolithic national model may be a morally defendable position.

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