“…To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.”
– Chapter 1, Article 1, Clause 2 of the Charter of the United Nations
When nations of the World gathered in San Francisco in 1945, they committed themselves to, among other things, the peremptory norm of self-determination: the ability of distinct nations of peoples to govern autonomously, free from the control or influence of other states. This principle is as self-evident as it is deeply rooted in the very principle of democracy—the right of the people to choose how they are governed.
However, in the 72 years since the founding of the United Nations, various geopolitical forces have worked to methodically undermine the principle of self-determination into its current eroded state.
The ongoing succession crisis in Catalunya is the prime example of this. At the heart of the matter is whether Catalans have the right to decide, through democratic means, on the issue of their sovereignty. The citizens of Catalunya have long had a language and culture distinct from that of Spain, as well as various pro-independence political movements.
Following a mass demonstration on National Day of Catalunya in 2012, attended by about 1.5 million people, President of the Generalitat (similar to the provincial premier) Artur Mas called a snap election declared, “The time has arrived to exercise [the right to self-determination] in a democratic, peaceful and constructive way.”
Although the referendum was struck down as unconstitutional by Madrid, it went forward, and that began a dramatic few years in Catalan politics. Long story short, separatists won majorities in both the referendum and the subsequent regional elections, Mas resigned in a power struggle, and former separatist journalist Carles Puigdemont was democratically installed as president. Puigdemont called a binding referendum for October 1, 2017, which was approved by the Catalan Parliament. Once more, the Spanish High Court ruled the democratic exercise to be illegal and unconstitutional.
In defiance of the Spanish Crown and the Spanish government, the referendum went forward as promised. In response, the Spanish government, led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, attempted to thwart the vote from taking place by any means necessary. Prior to the election, hundreds of websites and applications were shut down. Polling stations were raided and ballot papers seized. At one polling station, voters occupied the building overnight. A few minutes after the police checked the premises, they smuggled in ballot boxes.
On the day of the Election, violent police crackdowns were rampant across Catalunya. Spanish police officers were known to have raided polling stations, tear gassed voters, brutalized them with batons, and fired rubber bullets at demonstrators. Over 900 civilians were injured by the police force. The Spanish government’s foreign minister has since alleged these reports as “fake news.” In spite of the violence, 92% favored succession on a turnout of 43% (that works out to 40% in favor in a country in which only 56% turned out in 2006 regional elections and 75% in 2015). On October 3, a general strike was held to protest police actions, with 700,000 participating in Barcelona alone.
On October 10, with tensions mounting, President Puigdemont delivered a speech before the regional Parliament, calling for dialogue and de-escalation. Ironically, the Spanish government had already arrested two Catalan independence leaders and had prepared to arrest Puigdemont had he declared independence. On October 20, Rajoy and his Cabinet entered uncharted territory when they moved toward invoking Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which would allow the central government to remove the elected government in Catalunya and impose direct rule until new elections are held.
In response, Puigdemont declared that he “would not accept” Rajoy’s plan. On October 27, The Catalan Parliament voted to unilaterally declare independence. Later that day, Madrid invoked Article 155, imposing direct rule over Catalunya, calling for fresh elections in December.
Puigdemont and four of his ministers fled to Belgium amid the turmoil. Eight ministers who stayed behind in Catalunya were jailed on November 2. European arrest warrants are out for Puigdemont and his remaining ministers, who are accused of “rebellion” and “sedition”, although Puigdemont insists he will fight extradition and perhaps run in the December election.
Both parties, for the moment being, remain hell-bent on their stance—and for good reason. First, Catalunya’s economy is far stronger than that of Spain. Therefore, Catalans pay for money to Madrid in taxes than they receive. Many Catalans want that to change, but Madrid does not: Spain has already seen its economy crippled by the recession and subsequent austerity measures, it cannot afford to lose 20% of its economy. Then, there is the issue of lending legitimacy to other independence movements underway in Spain, such as the push in the Basque Country.
The true shame is not the self-interested actions of the Spanish government, for they were predictable. What will be recorded in the history books is the deafening silence of the international community, including in the European Union and the United Nations. These two institutions—which supposedly promote democracy—have failed to stand up for this very principle.
As a matter of fact, the powers that be within the European Union have plotted to pressure Catalunya to remain in Spain. The EU called the vote “not legal” and many in the EU have threatened to isolate an independent Catalunya through whatever measures necessary, including trade tariffs. Many countries, including neighbouring France, have declared it will not recognise Catalunya as an independent state. Little mention has been made about the violence which marred the vote.
Catalans are not asking for much. Like Quebec in 1995 and Scotland in 2015, they are merely asking for the right to determine for themselves their future in Spain and in Europe. One must ask, can a nation truly call itself democratic if it uses every means within its power to stifle democratic exercises with violence? Moreover, can an entity simultaneously promote democracy and turn a blind eye to the most anti-democratic of practices?
Images courtesy of Getty