Guardians: The Bridge between the Medical and Social Models of Disability

Getting fitted out for a better future Omar (in the middle surrounded by his brother Rasekh, 10 and sister Majan, 8) was born with weak legs and hands since birth. They came to the Red Cross orthopedic clinic in Kabul with their father to get Omar fitted up for a wheelchair. Rasekh is in grade 4 and love Dari classes – he would like to be an engineer. Omar will have to be pushed around for the rest of his life, but his siblings are happy to support him to have a normal life – he hopes to start school soon. Aid from the UK is supporting the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to run a network of seven orthopaedic centres across Afghanistan to assist those affected by mobility disabilities, including hundreds of mine victims. The UK is to help provide 3,800 new artificial limbs and 10,000 crutches for Afghan children and adults disabled during 30 years of conflict and extreme poverty. UK Dept of Intl Development
Omar (in the middle surrounded by his brother Rasekh, 10 and sister Majan, 8) was born with weak legs and hands since birth. They came to the Red Cross orthopedic clinic in Kabul with their father to get Omar fitted up for a wheelchair. Rasekh is in grade 4 and loves Dari classes, he would like to be an engineer. Omar will have to be pushed around for the rest of his life, but his siblings are happy to support him to have a normal life, he hopes to start school soon. Aid from the UK is supporting the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to run a network of seven orthopaedic centres across Afghanistan to assist those affected by mobility disabilities, including hundreds of mine victims. The UK is to help provide 3,800 new artificial limbs and 10,000 crutches for Afghan children and adults disabled during 30 years of conflict and extreme poverty. Source: UK Department of International Development, Creative Commons

I am currently binge-watching Law & Order: SVU. In one episode, “Competence,” the rape survivor has Downs Syndrome (DS). Her mother, who is also her legal guardian, feels DS limits her ability to function “normally” in the world. The main concern of the mother is her daughter’s ability to care for the baby she is carrying as a result of the repeated rapes. The mother’s protection of her daughter extended only as far as she could be with her. Throughout the show, the revelation is that the store owner, where the daughter worked part-time as a stocker, exploited her disadvantage for his advantage. To limit the risk of the baby having DS and added to her belief in her daughter’s inability to care for the baby, the mother arranged an abortion of her daughter’s behalf. The courts stepped in and conducted a competency trial. Placed on the stand, the pregnant rape survivor acknowledged that once she did set fire to the kitchen but that she could now make soup because her boyfriend showed her. She also explained that even though she did not know how to care for a baby yet, she could learn if someone taught her.

As persons with disabilities (PWDs) move from the medical model into the social model in pursuit of independence, often overlooked are the role and needs of the caregiver. Society must begin to acknowledge and identify the paradigm shift occurring across the board. The purpose of this blog is to reflect on the role of parents and caretakers (also referred to as guardians) who attempt to bridge the gap between the medical and social models of disability while encouraging self-determination and protecting their loved ones in a created world that does not have them in mind.

The societal solution to PWDs was eugenics, institutionalization, or isolation–out of sight and out of mind for centuries. The employment of this solution allowed and continues to allow some guardians to abuse the system and take advantage of those in their care, and the pursuit of swift legal action is necessary. However, as societies move towards inclusivity, we must give encouragement and praise to those who through their actions look for avenues and solutions that empower. More specifically, we must continue to champion the guardians. With the implementation of the CRPD, standards of ADA, more universal design efforts, and competency hearings, PWDs are becoming productive members within their communities. So, what does this mean for their guardians who have sacrificed to protect their family member from the cruelty of an able-bodied world and the able-bodied world not used to making allowances for Others, particularly PWDs?

Who is a guardian? Persons with intellectual disabilities often have a legal guardian. The legal guardian acts in the “best interest” of their ward or the person in their charge. Much of the present debate regarding guardianship is the abuse of power in the denial of civil and human rights. In a 2007 study, Dorothy Squatrito Millar found that study participants did not recognize the disconnection between self-determination and guardianship or realize that there are several available alternatives to guardianship. Despite the arrival at the age of majority (18), students with intellectual disabilities did not receive the opportunity to self-advocate; rather, in many instances, they are given directions on what to do, or their guardian did the task for them. The inability to self-advocate as an adult is a denial of personhood, a violation of dignity. “We are adults. They need to accept that” and “they need to put themselves in our shoes sometimes” were some of the responses of the students.

What is notable about the SVU competency hearing is the assumption that all adults know how to care for a baby or balance a checkbook. The implication is that a person with an intellectual disability needs to have a guardian to avoid making any mistakes. As one non-disabled parent in Millar’s study put it, “We all make mistakes, and we all need help sometime—but that doesn’t mean we need guardians.” Most guardians resist the transition to adulthood and self-determination out of fear of exploitation, lack of information, and concern for their disabled child’s well-being. Millar concludes that while there is a significant need for more research on the transition to adulthood, the inclusion of children with intellectual disabilities into decision making throughout their lives does assist in the collaboration between other institutions in providing care that aligns with goals, imparts knowledge, addresses concerns, and maintains dignity and personhood.

 

 

The Kurdish Question

Kurdish soldiers salute the Kurdish flag.
Peshmerga | Kurdish Army. Source: Kurdishstruggle, Creative Commons

Many years ago, or so the story goes, a young, Kurdish man named Mem fell deeply in love with the Emir’s sister – a beautiful, young woman named Zin. This Emir, however, had in his service an ambitious young minister named Beko who coveted the affections of Zin for himself and, thus, set about conspiring to undermine his competition. Ultimately, his machinations proved to be successful, creating a tragic series of events that concluded in a similar vein to that of two far more famous, star-crossed lovers. Mem perished alone in the darkest corner of the Emir’s dungeon, and upon discovering this, Zin followed her lover into the afterlife.

At the funeral, the two lovers were buried side-by-side, but the grave was not yet full. Entranced by the beauty of Zin even in death, Beko leaned over her grave to stare, enraging the Emir:

[He] pulls out his sword and slices off Beko’s head. A drop of his blood falls between the two lovers, and a thornbush grows on the very spot, separating Mem and Zin just as Beko tried to separate them in life. It is said that every time the thornbush is cut down, it grows back. 

The mausoleum of the two lovers still stands today in the city of Cizre, the point at which the borders of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria meet. Yet this story possesses a significance far greater than simple literary achievement. It is the recurring tale of the Kurdish people and their struggle for self-determination.

In this explicitly nationalist story, Mem is a metaphor for the Kurds, while Zin represents the Kurdish homeland. As much as they long for each other, however, there is always a Beko, a meddling outsider, a Turk, a Persian, an Arab who seeks to divide them. The empires of these outsiders may fall, but each plants, in its death throes, the seeds for a new thornbush that will once again deny Kurds self-determination. Ultimately, the modern states of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey are merely the latest iteration of this thornbush.

Turkey and Iraq threaten Kurds over their independence referendum

Mountain Turks or Kurds?

In the Middle East, citizenship and nationhood strongly revolve around the concept of identity primordialism, involving, among many other factors, a common history, language, culture, and ethnicity. It is primarily on this basis that its enemies seek to deny the Kurdish people self-determination — their right to establish a nation of their own and exercise uninhibited control over their own affairs.

For centuries, states portrayed their Kurdish minorities as merely “ignorant and reactionary ‘Mountain Turks’ speaking a debased [combination] of mixed Turkish, Persian, and Arabic.” This is a sound strategy in the sense that it – if true – nullifies the linguistic and ethnic requirements needed to justify a primordial basis for self-determination. As can be expected, however, the Kurds believe otherwise. Masoud Barzani, the current Kurdish leader, succinctly rejected these claims, stating that “from World War One until now, [Kurds] are not part of Iraq. We have our geography, land, and culture. We have our own language. We refuse to be subordinates.”

Ultimately, this leads to the question of who to believe. Are the Kurds simply backwards, uneducated mountain people? Or do the Kurds constitute a distinct people who have been unfairly portrayed by their opponents?

The Linguistic Test

Despite his Marxist inclination to dismiss the nation as a purely “imaginary community,” Benedict Anderson nevertheless made a crucial observation, namely that language possesses “central ideological and political importance” as the “private property”  of a specific ethnic group. Ehmedê Xanî – the Kurdish author of Mem u-Zin – recognized this at an early date (1692 AD), exhorting the Kurds to become literate in their own language “so that people won’t say that […] all sorts of people have their books and only the Kurds are lacking.” Unfortunately, the Kurds ignored his warning, granting their enemies a powerful weapon in the fight to deny them self-determination on the claim that they lack a language of their own.

There are three criteria by which one can evaluate this claim: (1) mutual intelligibility, or the ability of two people speaking two different languages to understand each other; (2) uniqueness in terms of letters, sounds, and words; and (3) recognition.

In order for languages to be mutually intelligible, they must be descended from the same language tree. Although Kurdish is a member of the Indo-European language family, neither Turkish (Altaic) or Arabic (Afroasiatic) can claim the same, meaning that they are not mutually intelligible. Persian, on the other hand, is a member of the Indo-European language family, but it is not mutually intelligible with any Kurdish dialect either.

The origins of these differences are disputed. Some claim it is a result of the mountainous geography making communication difficult, while others claim Kurdish ultimately descended from a language that predates the arrival of Indo-European languages. However, it is known for certain these differences are significant. Aside from primarily using the Latin alphabet (as opposed to the Arabic one), Kurdish also possesses differences in sounds, grammar, and words. This is evidenced in Mem u-Zin where “out of 26,560 words, […] 19,601 (74%) of them are Kurdish, 6,015 (23%) are Arabic, 918 (3% are Farsi), and 26 (less than 1%) are Turkish.”

As in the case of nations, recognition by others represents an important signifier of linguistic legitimacy. Kurdish is recognized as an official language only in Iraq, but only under duress from the United States. Unofficially, both historic and contemporary bans on the use and teaching of Kurdish by the Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, and Turkish authorities represent de facto recognition of their distinctiveness. After all, is there a point in banning a language that is your own?

News coverage of Saddam Hussein’s chemical attack on the Kurds

A History of Suffering

Despite the fact that scholars disagree on much regarding nationalism, all can agree that a nation – whether civic, primordial, or imagined – requires “a historic continuity” for use “as a legitimator of action and cement of group cohesion.” Such cohesion becomes even stronger when marked by having “suffered together, […] for having suffered together unites more than joy.”

Although the Arabs, Persians, and Turks deny the Kurds their right to self-determination, the Kurds arguably possess a much stronger claim to the northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, eastern Turkey, and northwestern Iran than their current owners. The Kurds resided in these lands at least as early as 2000 BC when they were first mentioned by the Sumerians. Over one thousand years later, the Kurds remained. Ancient Greek historians, such as Herodotus and Xenophanes, described them, as did Strabo during the Roman Empire. Without fail, they always resided in these same lands, even establishing independent kingdoms that still existed at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Throughout this period, however, the majority of Kurds were conquered by one foreign empire after another. Some Kurds, such as Saladin – the Egyptian Sultan who recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders – rose to great heights, but the vast majority were not treated well, to say the least. This served as the impetus for Mem u-Zin, which was passed on orally until Ehmedê Xanî codified it in 1692 AD as one of the first explicitly nationalist pieces of literature to ever be written.

Following the First World War, the suffering experienced by the Kurds began in earnest. They were promised independence in President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the Covenant of the League of Nations, and the Treaty of Sèvres. Ultimately, these promises came to naught as the Turks under Atatürk forced the allies to invalidate the treaty, which was replaced by the treaties of Lausanne and Ankara. These two treaties split the Kurdish populated regions among the newly created nations of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, effectively ending Kurdish hopes for a negotiated independence at this point in history.

However, it did not end agitation for independence by the Kurds, who refused “to accept subordination to the Arabs who, like the Kurds themselves had until then been a subject race.” These feelings were magnified by the harsh treatment of the Kurds by the new nations, which colluded to help each other suppress the Kurds. The Turks executed and imprisoned tribal leaders, students, politicians, and intellectuals, while ethnically cleansing Kurds from some areas. Furthermore, Kurdish youths were forced into boarding schools through which they could be ‘Turkified.’

In Iran, a brief Kurdish state was founded, but it ended after several months following the Allied withdrawal. The leaders of the state were hanged, while other participants were rounded up and imprisoned. Today, even being suspected of being sympathetic to separatist groups can lead to torture, imprisonment, or execution. Meanwhile, the treatment of Kurds in Syria was no better. Members of political organizations were routinely arrested. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds were deprived of their citizenship and deported, their property given to Arab settlers in an attempt at Arabization of the region. In all three of these countries, the Kurdish language was banned.

However, the Kurds have been consistently treated the worst in Iraq, beginning from 1961 to 1963 when the government massively bombed Kurdish towns and cities from the air. Under Saddam Hussein, a systematic attempt to commit genocide against the Kurds occurred. Almost three hundred thousand Kurds were forcibly relocated to southern Iraq, and during the process eight thousand young men and teenagers are believed to have been executed en masse. According to Human Rights Watch, this was part of a “long-standing campaign that destroyed almost every Kurdish village in Iraq […] and displaced at least a million” Kurds. The campaign ultimately ended with the chemical weapons attack on the town of Halabja that killed several thousand men, women, and children.

All of these actions constitute gross violations of every human rights document ever written, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Kurdish President Masoud Barzani’s justification for the Kurdish independence referendum

The Last Thornbush?

Following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, one would expect that things dramatically improve for the Kurds. While there was some improvement, namely that they were no longer being massacred in the hundreds of thousands, the Kurds have merely traded a Pan-Arabist government that despised them on account of their ethnicity for a Shia-dominated government that despises them on account of both their ethnicity and religion, Sunni Islam. The supposedly democratic government of Nouri al-Maliki regularly discriminated against Sunni Arabs and Kurds: delivering inadequate public services to non-Shia Iraqis, cutting power to non-Shia areas, purportedly arresting thousands of Sunnis and Kurds based on their ethnicity, and reneging on constitutional agreements with both as well.

Ultimately, this rampant discrimination pushed many Sunnis into the waiting arms of the Islamic States; however , the Kurds resisted such radicalization. Instead, they fought alongside the United States, as well the Iraqi central government that oppressed them, against the Islamic State. By all accounts, the Kurds suffered from the brunt of the fighting, retaking large portions of Iraq and capturing the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa in Syria.

It is in response to the previously mentioned discrimination, as well as their role in defeating the Islamic State, that Kurds decided that they are finally ready for an independent state of their own. The question now becomes, do they deserve it? The answer is an unequivocal yes for the following reasons:

1) The Kurds meet all of the criteria for nationhood and self-determination, including possessing their own distinct language and a common history.

2) The Kurds have been promised – through a variety of international agreements – independence for over a century. These promises should be honored in order to provide legitimacy to other international agreements on human rights, which also rely on their participants living up to their commitments.

3) The independence referendum occurred peacefully with both high turnout (72%) and overwhelming support (93% in favor).

4) The Kurds rejected radicalization in face of discrimination and persecution, and instead, fought alongside the United States against the Islamic State.

5) The Kurds have been treated harshly by every government that has ruled over them, even committing crimes against humanity against them.

6) The Kurds, unlike the Catalans, will actually be achieving sovereignty.

Throughout their history, the Kurds suffered greatly, but with uncommon resilience and strength, on behalf of their ethnicity. With each passing decade, however, it seems to grow worse. For that reason, it is high time that the world intervene on their behalf. This should be done not only to stop impending bloodshed in the aftermath of the fall of Kirkuk to Iraqi forces, but in order to assist the Kurds in permanently removing the thornbush that stands between them and their beloved, and long overdue, homeland of Kurdistan.

The Catalan Revolution

Catalan protestors demonstrate for independence.
20Set Barcelona 14. Wikimedia: Màrius Montón, Creative Commons

After an enormous earthquake destroys the city of Lisbon in Candide, Voltaire poignantly asks the reader, “If this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others” (Voltaire, 26)? Increasingly, the most potent of political earthquakes – nationalism – is enjoying a powerful rebirth following a long and tortuous decline in the aftermath of World War II. People across the globe are beginning to envision a different world, a better world – one in which they possess a nation of their own. Whether this rebirth will result in bloodshed on a scale not seen since the 1930s or in a peaceful resolution of differences is yet to be seen, but in all likelihood it will be determined on the opposite side of the Iberian Peninsula – in Catalonia.

Since at least the 1920s, the issue of self-determination – which can be defined as the ability of a distinct people to establish a nation of their own and exercise unimpeded sovereignty in their own affairs – began to be adopted into the lexicon of human rights. Woodrow Wilson was one of the first to interject self-determination into human rights, claiming that “nationalities … should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development” in his Fourteen Points. Ultimately, this belief influenced nearly every major, Western-produced document concerning human rights. Self-determination is explicitly guaranteed to all peoples in the Atlantic Charter, the Declaration by the United Nations, the United Nations Charter, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights among others.

Curiously, however, the European Convention on Human Rights – which is the most relevant document in this situation due to Spanish membership in the European Union – does not guarantee self-determination. In fact, it states that freedom of expression may be limited “in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, … or for maintaining the authority … of the judiciary” (ECHR, 11).  As will be demonstrated later, the Spanish government has employed all of these arguments in its bids to stop the Catalonian independence referendum from coming to fruition.

Aside from the European Convention on Human Rights, the connection between human rights and self-determination – at least until recently – has not been prominently disputed. The question then becomes, how do we determine to which groups the right of self-determination applies? The general consensus is that this right is primarily granted to peoples demonstrating the characteristics of a nation. However, the question of who constitutes a nation, and on what basis, generates considerable disagreement, particularly in the West, which has long attempted to suppress its own nationalism as penance for the destruction wreaked by Nazi Germany.

Some claim that the nation is a figment of the imagination, that it is an invented national tradition, that it is an imagined community (Hobsbawm and Ranger; Anderson). This is not to say that it does not possess meaning – history clearly demonstrates that it does – but that there is very little actual quantitative or qualitative basis on which a nation can be delineated. Others suggest that the nation is real, but that its membership is constantly in flux, shaped solely by economic considerations, individual choices, and shared beliefs (Deutsch; Gellner; Kohn). This “civic nationalism” generally possesses a more cosmopolitan outlook, and it often taken to the extreme by intellectuals, such as Ernest Renan, who claimed that “a nation’s existence is … [simply] a daily plebiscite,” (10) a daily referendum.

Yet others still define a nation as something timeless and primordial (Geertz; Isaacs; Smith). To these theorists, physical characteristics, shared culture, shared history, and shared language – to put it simply – combine to create “a self-aware ethnic group,” which forms a nation (Connor, 279-88; Schmitt). In modern academia, this conception of the nation is generally regarded with scorn as an outdated, primitive view. Among many people, however, it still holds tremendous sway as demonstrated vividly by the universal opposition to immigration by nationalist, as well as by the decline in social trust in multi-ethnic areas of the United States (Putnam). While there exists some genetic overlap between different ethnic groups in border regions, generally speaking, ethnic groups, and the nations they constitute, remain homogenous and distinct from one another. And even if they did not, as Walker Connor notes, “what ultimately matters is not what is but what people believe is” (Connor, 379-88).

Som una nació, nosaltres decidim

In determining if Catalonia possesses the right to independence and self-determination, one must first decide whether or not Catalonia constitutes a nation. As evidenced by the slogan above – which means “We are a nation, we decide” – Catalans clearly believe that they do. And all evidence unequivocally indicates that they are correct.

Indeed, Catalonia has previously experienced independence, existing as an independent kingdom until the fifteenth century when it was divided between the Spanish and French monarchies. Despite this conquest, Catalan culture – and a sense of “Catalan-ness” – survived and even thrived (Sahlins). The people of the region possessed a common language (Catalan), culture, symbols, and history that both united them and kept them distinct from their neighbors and conquerors. However, this distinctiveness was not preserved without a struggle. Various Spanish monarchs, as well as the dictator Francisco Franco from 1936 to 1975, sought to hispanicize the Catalans by banning their language and symbols. Attempts to resist were brutally and bloodily repressed, yet Catalonia’s distinctiveness survived into the current century.

After the death of Franco, the new Spanish Constitution granted Catalonia a limited form of autonomous self-government, and for several decades this largely satisfied the Catalans. Between 2009 and 2011, with the repression of Franco but a distant memory, this rapidly changed as various Catalan towns voted in symbolic independence referendums. In 2014, the first non-binding, Catalonia-wide referendum was held with a result of 81% in favor of independence.

Unfortunately for its supporters, however, this referendum encountered several difficulties. First, it was declared illegal and unconstitutional by the Spanish government, which then pursued criminal charges against the Catalan leaders responsible. Second, turnout only reached 42%, indicating that the referendum was not representative of the entire populace. And third, in subsequent elections, pro-independence parties received a plurality of the votes (48%), but never a majority.

Ultimately, this brings us to the Catalan independent referendum of 2017, which – due to the intransigence of both parties – threatens to engulf the Iberian Peninsula in its second civil war in under one hundred years. There were crucial differences between this referendum and those that preceded it. Unlike the previous referendum, the results of the 2017 referendum were binding. Furthermore, it was administered by a new Catalan leader, Carlos Puigdemont, who refused to swear the customary oaths of allegiance to the Spanish Constitution and monarch, King Felipe VI.

On October 1, 2017, approximately 42% of Catalans voted in the independence referendum, despite numerous human rights violations committed by the government of Spain in its attempt to disrupt the vote. The results were overwhelmingly in favor of independence – 92% supported the referendum. On the next day, Puigdemont took a fateful step and announced that Catalonia would declare its independence from Spain the following Monday, October 9, 2017.

¡No hay negociaciones con los golpistas!

To many Spaniards, the referendum was an illegal act and those who participated were criminals. Following the announcement of the results, millions of Spaniards took to the streets, shouting slogans – as in the video above – such as “I am Spanish,” “No negotiations with traitors,” and “Puigdemont to prison.” It is abundantly clear that the Spanish government under Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy took a similar hardline view of the Catalan independence referendum.

Although the Spanish government was correct in its stance that the referendum was illegal, and it rightly questioned the legitimacy of the vote, it grossly violated the human rights of its Catalan citizens as established in nearly every human rights document. As previously noted, however, it did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights, leading – along with no doubt more cynical reasons – the European Union to support Spain’s actions.

Generally, Spanish violations of Catalan human rights can be divided into two stages: the period before the vote and during the vote. In the weeks leading up to October 1, the Spanish government committed the vast majority of its human rights violations in Catalonia. Desperate to stop the vote from occurring, Spain infringed on the right to freedom of expression (censoring pro-independence websites, arresting pro-independence mayors, raiding the offices of pro-independence parties, occupying Catalan communications networks, threatening journalists cooperating with the referendum, and banning voting apps). The censoring of pro-independence speech, as well as the blocking of the actual referendum itself, violates the right to self-determination. However, Spain defended its actions, claiming that these actions were taken against criminals who were violating the law and undermining democratic processes. It likewise submitted a detailed rebuttal to all the claims made by the Catalan government.

On October 1, the day of the vote, the Spanish government dispatched hundreds of riot policemen into Catalonia. Videos subsequently emerged of policemen violently assaulting protestors, dragging people from voting stations, and seizing ballot boxes. Both El Pais and Le Monde, claim that many of the videos and pictures showing police brutality are fake. On the other hand, Catalan civilians also committed violence, throwing projectiles at policemen and assaulting anti-independence Catalans (the same video shows Spanish policemen administering first aid to pro-independence protestors). Other videos show Catalan protestors initiating violence against the police.

In the aftermath, the Catalan government claimed that over eight hundred people were injured during the clashes; however, El Pais, quoting Doctors Without Borders, disputed these figures, claiming that most of those individuals were not injured by the police. Furthermore, over four hundred police were injured.

Los independentistas catalanes han fracturado la unidad española

Addressing the Spanish nation in response to the Catalan independence referendum, King Felipe VI claimed that the separatists had fractured the unity of Spain, as well as Catalonia itself, and were undermining democracy. In an interview with El Pais, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy admitted that Catalans constituted their own nation, but denied their right to secede. Rajoy professed the belief that Catalans should abandon extremism, and work to coexist with the rest of Spain in a peaceful and mutually beneficial manner.

Are the Spanish monarch and prime minister correct? Or do the Catalan people possess the right to secede?

Although the Catalans do constitute a nation, and nations do possess the right to self-determination, the current iteration of the Catalonian independence movement possesses little, if any, basis for secession from a human rights or any other standpoint. This is true for several reasons. First, Spain is a highly functional democracy. According to the 2016 Democracy Index, Spain is the seventeenth most democratic nation in the world, several spots above the United States. If Spain were an authoritarian, dictatorial state, then Catalonia would present a stronger case, but Spain is not an authoritarian state, it is one of only 19 full democracies. And in a democracy no group should possess the right to unilaterally ignore the law or constitution simply because they disagree with it. An obvious exception would be if the laws were unjust; however, the Spanish Constitution and law – from an outside perspective – are not unjust in their treatment of Catalonia. In fact Spain has gone to great lengths to attempt to meet the demands of the Catalans – guaranteeing their right to autonomous self-government, granting the Catalan language official status, and pledging to protect their culture and traditions among other initiatives.

Second, no independence referendum, including that of 2017, has managed to even convince a majority of Catalans to show up to the polls. In both 2014 and 2017, only 42% of Catalans voted, and in 2015, pro-independence parties only managed to receive 48% of the vote. Such low turnout – especially when combined with massive, Catalan anti-independence rallies – does not equal a popular mandate for secession. Third, the voting was marked by highly irregular and often fraudulent voting conditions. Some videos show Catalan individuals stuffing ballots into boxes with no oversight or demonstration of identity, while others have sparked debate on whether the boxes arrived to the polling places already full of ballots. Even worse, several journalists documented the ability to vote multiple times at the same polling place. Catalonia’s implementation of the universal census, which allowed voters to vote at any polling place, also significantly increased the risk of fraud.

Finally, the independence referendum is ultimately one of futility. Self-determination is about charting one’s own course, independent of other bodies; however, Catalonia does not plan on actually achieving independence. It is merely exchanging one master in Spain for another in the European Union, which is arguably far less democratic than the Spanish government. What is the point of self-determination if you don’t have control over your own borders, currency, trade, laws, research and development, or even arts funding?

Today, Monday the 9th of October, Catalonia – despite Spain’s cancellation of its parliamentary session – will attempt to officially declare its independence. Prime Minister Rajoy, as well as King Felipe VI, have continually stated that there is no situation in which they would entertain actually allowing Catalonia to achieve independence. They have pledged to employ all of the means at their disposal to halt such a declaration, including ending Catalan autonomy and ordering the military to exercise its duty to maintain the territorial integrity and constitutional order of Spain.

Ultimately, the Catalan pursuit of a pointless independence, possessing little to no basis in human rights or even common sense, could see a return to the bloodshed that characterized the apex of nationalism – the 1930s. Already the signs can be observed. The referendum is serving to polarize both sides of the issue, heightening Spanish nationalism, and encouraging violence. Increasingly, many disillusioned Spaniards – in a last bid attempt to maintain their country’s longstanding territorial unity – will look for example to the last Spanish leader who was able to control the separatist tendencies of Catalonia: Francisco Franco. And if that occurs, Catalonia will certainly have created a different world, but will it be a better world for Catalans?