This headline is so absurd that it should be a joke, but unfortunately it’s not. Before we get to the details, you’ll recall that Catalonia (also referred to as Catalan sometimes) is a state in Spain that has been agitating for independence. Catalonia is by far the richest state in Spain, and it thus views the rest of the country as a bit of burden. Catalonia also has some unique cultural characteristics, including its own language, which make it distinct from the rest of the country. Recently, pro-independence parties won an election in Catalonia, so the push for a referendum on this question is building. For more details on some of the background here, check out this article.
On to the outrageous statements by the UN Head. In an interview with several Spanish newspapers, UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon commented on the independence movement in Catalonia, saying the following:
“When one speaks of self-determination, certain areas have been recognized by the United Nations as non-autonomous territories. But Catalonia does not fall into this category.”
In other words, the UN Chief is saying that Catalonians are ineligible to exercise self-determination. Just think about that for a second. The chief of the primary international governmental body–which was founded with the explicit purpose of developing “friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples“–has stated that, in fact, some people don’t have a right to self-determination after all. Oh and the quote I just cited, that’s from Article I of the UN Charter, its founding document.
Now, it is not a unique observation to say that the UN has failed to uphold international law. Indeed, it fails at this all the time–primarily because the country that is most frequently in violation of international law (that is, America), also has the power to veto resolutions condemning it. It’s kind of like letting a murder suspect cast the deciding vote in his own trial or his best friend’s. Well Jim, do you think you’re guilty? No? Okay, sounds good to me. Next case. It’s clearly ridiculous. And it’s also why almost everyone that has been prosecuted by the International Criminal Court comes from a very poor and non-influential country, usually in Africa.
But even in spite of these failings, the UN Chief still tends to talk the talk. For instance, Ban Ki-Moon applauded the Iran deal and the move by Obama to begin normalizing relations with Cuba–both of which were immensely controversial in the US. Thus, it is somewhat remarkable to see him outright repudiating the very principles his organization is based on.
What is a non-autonomous territory, anyway?
The UN Chief’s statement is most likely based on a very technical definition of a non-autonomous or non-self-governing territory. You see, this designation was originally developed to identify traditional colonies of the Western powers. The ultimate goal was to reverse the tide of colonialism by eventually restoring the sovereignty of the local populations. These non-autonomous territories were initially designated in 1946, just after the UN’s founding. At that time, Catalonia had been conquered and was firmly under the oppressive rule of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Since Catalonia is contiguous with the rest of Spain, it was not as blatant a colony as say French Indochina or the British Raj in India. Presumably, this is why it was not singled out as a non-self-governing territory initially. And it has not been added subsequently.
Actually, a brief review of the current listing of non-autonomous countries reveals that this designation is clearly meaningless. For instance, Guam and American Samoa qualified from the US, but somehow Puerto Rico isn’t included. More importantly, there’s no mention of Kurdistan, Tibet, Palestine, South Ossetia, Catalonia, or many other similarly disputed regions. If you took the UN Chief’s word for it, virtually none of the places currently pushing for independence would be legitimate.
So, why’d he do it?
Most likely, the UN General Secretary is trying to discourage the independence movement to prevent more instability in Europe. As noted upfront, Catalonia is the richest part of Spain and thus also pays the most taxes. Meanwhile, Spain is another European country that is on shaky financial footing. If it lost Catalonia, chances are that it could quickly find itself in a Greece / Portugal-type financial crisis, which could imperil the EU more broadly. Ban Ki-Moon and the powers that be would like to avoid this situation, and suppressing the aspirations of the Catalonian people is probably viewed as a small price to pay.
It’s a rational calculation, as far as it goes. But we should remember that choosing stability over self-determination often carries consequences of its own. History shows us that when a moderate movement is repressed, usually the one that follows is much more radical. It’s not clear what this would mean in the context of Catalonia, but we should expect this situation to get more tense if the chance for a referendum on independence is denied.