Is this what a modern European revolution looks like? There are reports that Catalonia is poised to declare independence from Spain unilaterally. Catalan trade unions have launched a general strike in protest against alleged police brutality during the independence referendum. Demonstrators have taken to the streets and are blocking roads in a display of civil disobedience, and the government of Catalonia seems to be openly disobeying demands from the Spanish government.
What happens next? Are the government of Catalonia’s action legal? If not according to Spanish constitutional law, then at least according to international law? Does the right to self-determination apply, or does it primarily concern peoples living under colonialism?
We had a comment from Íngrid arguing that the “Spanish Constitution is subordinated under international law, and international law says that the right to self-determination should always be ensured.”
Is she correct? To get a response, we spoke to José Luis Martí, Associate Professor of the Philosophy of Law at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, whose research focus includes questions of the philosophy of international law and democratic legitimacy. What would he say?
Well, I’m not an international lawyer, but what I can say about the specific international legal argument is that most international lawyers – almost all of them, in fact – would say that the right of self-determination doesn’t apply to cases like Catalonia. The right to self-determination was born and evolved basically to be applied to former colonies, and that’s not the case with Catalonia…
Having said this, I think that many Catalan secessionists – probably most of them, and particularly the government of Catalonia – are not trying to say that their moves are legal. They certainly concede that they’re not legal according to the Spanish constitution and legal system. So, they accept that these moves are illegal. But, the thing is, we’re at a point now – and this week in particular – we are at a point in which legality is probably not the most important thing.
So, the independence movement is aware that they are launching a sort of rebellion. They are aware of that. They don’t try to masquerade or try to deceive the people about this. They are launching a rebellion, and the most important thing about rebellions is not whether they are legal because, by definition, they are not. The most important thing is whether this rebellion is legitimate.
My personal view was that up to last week, it was not legitimate. To begin with, because we didn’t know whether there was a majority of Catalans who gave support to this rebellion… Actually, all the data we had until last week is that there is no such majority, and if there is not, then the rebellion, I would say, is not legitimate.
I would go even further. I would say that to justify and legitimise a rebellion you need more than just 50 + 1% of the people. You need a vast majority of people wanting it. And all the data we had is that there was no such majority. So, again, up until last week I think that the rebellion was neither legal nor legitimate. However, things might be changing now, because on Sunday, as you may know, the police were very harsh in beating the people who were peacefully turning out and queuing to cast their votes, etc. Things are moving very quickly this week.
I think now, today on 3 October, there is a majority – a vast majority – of Catalans who feel disgust and are very angry about what happened on Sunday. They felt that it was a humiliation, that it was an unjustified act of violence, and so things might rapidly change. Who knows? Maybe the secessionist movement is gaining popular support and therefore is gaining also democratic legitimacy. So, I think we should evaluate what is happening now not in terms of the legality of the issue, because even the secessionists are not trying very hard to make this argument about international law, and they concede that it is totally unconstitutional and illegal according to Spanish law. But that’s not the question. The question is whether this is legitimate. And rebellion and revolution may be legitimate, even if it is happening in a democratic state.
So, I don’t think – as many others might think – that rebellions are totally unjustified when you have a democratic system in front of you. I think they might be justified, but what they require is vast popular support. So far, I haven’t seen this popular support obtained in Catalonia. Things might be changing very quickly, and we’ll see what happens at the end of this week. I think we will see many developments over the next couple of days.
Can Catalonia declare independence under international law? What happens if Catalonia declares independence unilaterally? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!