The question if homogeneous cultural groups living in territories that are part of a broader nation have the right to ask for independence and create a new self-governed, independent State separated from their previous country appears in different parts of the world. Within Europe the Catalan independence referendum has made headlines, as did the Scottish one a few years ago. The struggle of the Kurdish people is ongoing, and, in the Asian continent, the issue of the Kashmiri region has demanded international attention for decade.
Analysing this question and its connection to human rights was the topic of the event the World Solidarity Forum hosted on January 30th, 2018. The conference, that took place at Science14 in Brussels, gathered a panel of experts on human rights and international law putting forward proposals for renewed approaches to this issue. Our keynote speaker was Dr. Igor Šoltes, Member of the European Parliament and co-founder of the EU-Catalonia Dialogue Platform.
Dr. Šoltes, tapping into his decade long expertise in international law, argued that the resolution to the demand of independence of certain regions, when happening through democratic means, must rely on existing legal frameworks. In reference to Catalonia, he reminded the audience that both the Venice Commission as well the European Convention on Human Rights could provide spaces for a debate. However, he argued, the EU has a key role to play in the dialogue and the issue cannot be dismissed simply as a national question. This also means the EU cannot have double-standards when it comes to the demands for freedoms by citizens, one within its border and one outside of it.
Following the keynote speech, the event moved to a panel debate. The first of our panellists to speak was Mr Kahraman Evsen, President of the Kurdish European Society. Mr Evsen focused his speech on the way which the Kurdish people, formally residing in different States in the Middle-East, are struggling to form a united Kurdish independent country. He stated that many hopes were born around the independence referendum that took place in Iraq in 2017 but that, since then, as nothing really changed, the Kurds are feeling that they have been exploited by the West in the fight against ISIS but abandoned when it was defeated. He concluded that the Kurdish people need to be protected by international law and human rights to be successful in their struggle.
The second panellist to take the floor was Dr Shamila Mahmood, an expert in international law, who focused on the region of Kashmir. She started her discussion by recollecting the history of the region from 1947, when both Pakistan and India become independent, internationally recognised countries. Since when Kashmir was taken over by India, the question of independence started with attempts to solve the issue via international law, such as the resolution of 1948 concerning the need for a plebiscite and a referendum. However, such measures were never taken, and the region became theatre to many human rights abuses, such as murder, maiming and systematic rape. She argued the situation never really improved as, for example, in 1987 a local independence movement started but it was met only with further violence, like the use of pellet guns in the last few years. Her conclusion was that the international community must be much more active to make sure a peaceful resolution to this struggle is found.
The last panellist to speak was Mr Erik Edman, a representative of DiEM25 in Belgium. He offered a political perspective on the position of the European Union. His view is that the EU is showing a particularly negative track record when it comes to the struggle of citizens, particularly if we look at the events and violence in Catalonia, displaying a lack of creativity and little regard to the value of democracy. He pinpointed one of the problems as the underlying narrative that see borders as the solution to problem. Borders are an obstacle to dialogue, which is the most important element conducive to peaceful resolution in cases of struggles, for independence or otherwise.
Following the last presentation, the event concluded with the Q&A session about topics like the economic sustainability of Kurdistan, violence in Kashmiri elections, and the best way to cope with the Catalan crisis on the day of the referendum.