Kurdistan, Sudan, Western Sahara, Yemen: On People’s Right To Self-Determination

A people’s right to self-determination has been somewhat neglected over the past few decades, but Catalan demands for independence have brought it back into the international spotlight. However, in the region which extends from Morocco to Iran, deeply perturbed by wars and foreign intervention, the issue takes on a special cast.

Basque solidarity with the Sahrawis: demonstration in Bilbao for the independence of Western Sahara, 2006.

While, of course, the right to self-determination remains perfectly legitimate, its application in that part of the world is especially problematic, for it challenges the ongoing construction of nation states and encounters multiple obstacles. At the beginning of the 20th C., the Kurds demanded recognition as a nation and promised a state, but at the end of WW1, this was denied them. A century later, they are a people who live divided between Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. Since the first Gulf War (1990-1991) the Iraqi Kurds, taking advantage of international military interventions, have established a region with a high degree of autonomy. Boasting of their participation in the struggle against the Islamic State, they organized unilaterally a referendum on independence, an initiative which angered Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran. Despite the massive victory of the “yes” vote, this ballot caused the Iraqi army to attack Kirkuk and revealed deep dissensions among Kurdish organizations in Iraq.

There is often a huge gulf between the principle and its application. The right to self-determination was finally won by South Sudan after decades of armed struggle against Khartoum’s chauvinism (complicated by US and Israeli interventions in favor of secession). An independent was set up in 2011, but rapidly became mired in endless civil war. state

In Yemen, after a process of unification of the South and North that was completed in 1990, the current war in Yemen gave a new lease of life to the southern secessionist movement (al-hirak al-Janubi) born in the mid-2000s. It is supported by the United Arab Emirates, which sees Southern independence as a means of establishing itself militarily and economically. Since March 2015, the fighting has produced a de facto secession and the secessionist option seems to be widely shared by the population. While the Southern leadership has long been fragmented, it now appears to be more united behind the Southern Transitional Council formed in the spring of 2017 behind Aydarus Al-Zubaydi, but struggles to develop a coherent timetable and procedure for achieving independence.

In North Africa, the Sahrawis too have long dreamt of independence. In 1966, well before the creation of the Polisario Front in 1973, the UN and the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) invited Spain, the colonial power, to withdraw from the territory in keeping with the procedures of self-determination. Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania all accepted the principle at the time. Complications set in when King Hassan II decided to make the Western Sahara a great national cause in an effort to unite the country around a weakened throne. The conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front over the sovereignty of Western Sahara is coupled with a dispute between Rabat and Algiers. In order to weaken a neighbor that has never ceased to dispute the borders between them, Algiers has been giving the Sahrawi independence fighters a helping hand.

Algeria counts the Polisario’s struggle as part of the decolonizing movement and officially supports the Sahrawi’s right to self-determination, justifying its defense of this principle on the grounds that Algeria itself dates its independence from the 1962 self-determination referendum.

As a consequence, many have come to see self-determination as synonymous with independence. After much hesitation, Morocco, at the end of the nineties, adopted the concept of autonomy as its solution to the Sahara conflict, explicitly excluding self-determination. However, the autonomy advocated by Morocco was not the result of any negotiations with the Sahrawis, nor were the latter even consulted. Today the stalemate is complete and this conflict is destabilizing the entire Maghreb. Which is why the UN General Secretary, Antonio Guterres has called on both parties to be “realistic” and adopt a “spirit of compromise.”

The right to self-determination is one of the fundamental principles of international law, but this does not necessarily mean independence. Yet the examples of Kurdistan, Sudan, Yemen and Western Sahara show the difficulties of implementing in a region where governments which have lost all legitimacy repress any opposition and stifle every prospect of change, a situation which encourages pro-secession movements, sometimes supported by foreign intervention.