Palestine, Somaliland, Taiwan, Kurdistan, Scotland, Catalonia, Kosovo, Western Sahara. These are all just some of the major independence movements around the world. But what are they all about?
In this post, I’m going to continue my quick guide to 20 of the most prominent independence movements and disputes around the world. [MUSIC] Hello. My name is James Ker-Lindsay. Welcome to ‘Independent Thinking’.
A channel dedicated to international relation, independence, statehood and the origins of countries. In part one, I began to look at the 20 key independence movements around the world. Following on from my initial group of 10, in this post I’ll be continuing the journey with a look at the next 10 territories. In case you haven’t seen it already, and would like to watch it first, I’ve put a link above and in the description below. Just to recap, in choosing the cases I’ve drawn on three main groups.
First of all, we have the de facto states. Territories that have the attributes of statehood, but are either wholly unrecognized or enjoy only partial recognition on the world stage. Secondly, I’ve included some of the most prominent territories that have a reasonable chance of obtaining statehood. And, thirdly, I’ve included a few independence movements that tend to attract a lot of international attention – even if their chances of actually securing independence may be limited.
So, let’s get started with the second group of ten. Continuing on from where we left off in the previous post, we’re starting Oceania and Chuuk – one of the four constituent parts of the Federated States of Micronesia; a collection of over a thousand islands located north of Papua New Guinea. Having been part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific, which was administered by the United States, Micronesia nominally became an independent state in 1979, before signing a Compact of Free Association with the United States in 1986. This means that Washington handles the country’s defence and foreign affairs and provides financial assistance. Over the years, tensions have grown between Chuuk, which has about half the country’s population of 110,000 people, and the three other states of the Federation over the issue of state finances.
Originally, Chuuk intended to hold a referendum on independence in 2015. However, this was postponed until March 2019 over the constitutionality of secession. This later vote was then also delayed until November 2020. However, in February 2020, it was announced that the referendum had been postponed a third time, until March 2022. At this stage, it’s unclear when, or even whether, a vote will in fact be held.
Importantly, the United States has come out against independence and has said it won’t negotiate a separate free association agreement with an independent Chuuk. But others suspect that the country could instead look to China for funding if this happens. This adds an interesting geopolitical dimension to the issue. From there it’s a short hop over to West Papua, just north of Australia.
This is perhaps one of the lesser known cases on the list. However, to many seasoned observers it will certainly deserve its place in this lineup. The western part of the island of New Guinea had been a part of the Dutch East Indies. When this became independent as Indonesia, in the late 1940s, Netherlands New Guinea remained in Dutch hands. While Indonesia laid claim to the territory, the Dutch instead envisaged giving it eventual independence.
However, in the face of mounting pressure from Indonesia, in 1962 the Dutch government agreed to hand it over to UN administration with an understanding that this would pave the way for it to be passed to Indonesian rule pending a referendum on its future. In 1965, following the handover to Indonesia, the Free Papuan Movement was established to secure the territory’s independence. Then, four years later, in 1969, the referendum that had been promised was held.
But rather than allow a popular vote, Indonesia instead hand-picked over a thousand elders, who decided unanimously to keep the territory as part of Indonesia. In the decades since then, the conflict in West Papua has continued. However, very little is known about the actual situation on the ground as Indonesia forbids foreign journalists from entering the territory. That said, there have been allegations of large numbers of deaths and widespread human rights abuses.
Moreover, there also appears to have been an escalation in fighting in the past few years. Although West Papua has regularly raised at the UN General Assembly by various Pacific states, Indonesia insists that its sovereignty is not up for debate. From Southeast Asia we head all the way across the Indian Ocean to the horn of Africa and Somaliland. To my mind, this is one of the strongest contenders for recognition on the list.
A British colonial trusteeship, it achieved independence on the 26 June 1960 and was promptly recognized by over 30 countries. However, just five days later, 1 July 1960, it united with Italian Somaliland to form the Somali Republic. This soon proved to be a difficult and unhappy union. Somaliland’s autonomy was stripped away and it found itself increasingly sidelined. However, in 1991, as what had now become Somalia sank into chaos following the collapse of the central government, Somaliland reclaimed its independence.
Despite its stability compared to Somalia, in the 30 years since then it has remained unrecognized on the world stage. While its case for statehood undoubtedly has a lot of sympathy, this is yet to be translated into formal acknowledgement by any UN members – even though a 2005 African Union fact-finding mission recommended that it be accepted as independent sovereign state. That said, it has built up good working relations with a number of countries in Africa. It also has high level contacts with many other countries around the world; not least of all the United Kingdom. Ultimately, it’s hard to see how Somaliland can ever reunite with Somalia.
But it also needs to make a breakthrough on international recognition. The question therefore is which country could be willing to go first and recognize it? Next, we head north to the Middle East and Kurdistan. This is an interesting case, not least of all because it’s often said that the Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without their own state.
Although they were promised the prospect of their own country under the Treaty of Sevres, at the end of the First World War, the agreement was never in fact implemented. Instead, the territory was divided between Turkey and Iraq. In the century since then, the campaign for Kurdish independence has continued.
In Turkey, the Kurdish Workers Party, the PKK, has waged a guerrilla campaign for over a quarter of a century. However, the main focus has been on Iraq. In 1991, following the first Gulf War, the Kurds in northern Iraq established their own autonomous region, which soon came to be seen as an independent state in waiting. This changed in 2003 with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The United States and other key actors wanted to keep Iraq united; albeit retaining Kurdish autonomy.
Nevertheless, on 25 September 2017, and despite strong objections from the Iraqi Government, the Kurdish Government organized a referendum on statehood. With a 72% turnout, 92.73% supported independence. While many expected a declaration of independence, following considerable pressure from regional actors and key international partners, and a military campaign by the Iraqi Government, just three weeks later the Kurdish leadership announced that the results of the referendum had been frozen. As things stand, it’s unclear when, rather than if, another push for independence will occur.
From there we head back over to the Caucasus and Abkhazia. Located in the southern Caucasus, it came under Russian rule at the start of the 19th century. Following the Russian Revolution, it became a Soviet Socialist Republic, before being incorporated into the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, as an autonomous republic, in 1931. On 23 July 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia unilaterally declared independence. Although Georgia tried to reassert its authority, Abkhaz forces aided by Russia were able to hold on to most of the territory until, in May 1994, a UN-monitored ceasefire was reached.
Although peace talks were held in the years that followed, in August 2008 Russia and Abkhazia launched an operation to take back the remaining territory held by Georgia. Moscow then announced that it had recognized Abkhazia as an independent state; as did five other countries: Venezuela, Nicaragua and the Pacific island states of Nauru, Vanuatu and Tuvalu. Overall, it’s hard to see where things go from here. There’s little immediate prospect of reunification. Meanwhile, wider international recognition seems highly unlikely.
This is one of the most clearly frozen of all the independence conflicts on the list. Now this is where you might expect me to turn to South Ossetia. But I won’t. This may surprise many, but with just 20 cases to choose from, I don’t actually think South Ossetia actually merits a place.
Despite the international recognition it has received alongside Abkhazia, I’m not entirely convinced it is truly a de facto state. Nor do I think it truly aspires to independence. Instead, many believe the aim is to unite with Russia.
For this reason, and as interesting and significant a case as it is, it isn’t in my top 20. However, I certainly plan to come back to it in a future post. Next, we head over to one of the most significant independence issues on the international stage: Palestine. In 1947, the United Nations proposed that the British held territory of Palestine be partitioned to create an independent Jewish and an independent Arab state.
This was rejected by the Palestinians, and when Israel was created, in May 1948, it was immediately attacked by its Arab neighbours. In the ensuing conflict, Israel captured three quarters of the territory originally set aside for a Palestinian state. Just under 20 years later, Israel was attacked again. This time it took control of the remaining Palestinian territories: the West Bank and Gaza.
This led to UN Security Council Resolution 242, which called for Israel to withdraw from the territories it had captured in 1967, and for all parties to accept the sovereignty and territorial integrity of every state in the region. Then, in 1974, the UN General Assembly confirmed the inalienable rights of the Palestinians to self-determination and national independence. On 15 November 1988, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the PLO, formally proclaimed the State of Palestine.
While Israeli and Palestinian leaders subsequently agreed to a two-state solution, which would see a fully independent Palestine coexist alongside Israel, progress has stalled. As a result, Palestine has pressed ahead with its diplomatic campaign for recognition. Today, its statehood has been accepted by almost 140 countries around the world, and in 2011 it applied to join the UN. Although this was blocked by the United States, on 29 November 2012 Palestine was admitted as a non-member observing state at the UN.
However, as things stand, there’s little sign a fully independent Palestinian state will exist anytime soon. Meanwhile, Israel’s threats to formally annex the occupied territories risk making the actual realisation of a Palestinian state all but impossible. Next, it’s over to the Balkans and Republic Srpska. In 1991, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia broke apart, sparking a series of conflicts. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats fought to break away and unite with Serbia and Croatia respectively.
In 1995, a peace agreement was negotiated that saw the Bosnian Serbs reintegrate their self-proclaimed entity, Republika Srpska, into the Bosnian state – albeit with a high degree of autonomy. At first, this reintegration appeared to be making progress. However, over the past decade this has been reversed.
Much needed constitutional reforms have failed and political relations have broken down between the communities. Meanwhile, senior members of the Bosnian Serb leadership have repeatedly and increasingly suggested that Republika Srpska might try to break away and either form an independent state or unite with neighboring Serbia. In reality, it seems hard to see how either could happen.
Secession is explicitly ruled out under the terms of the 1995 peace agreement and Bosnia’s territorial integrity has been repeatedly reaffirmed by the UN Security Council. Nevertheless, threats of secession remain a source of genuine concern. Many feel that there’s a real possibility of a return to conflict if the situation is not managed carefully.
Next, we head south to Africa and Ambazonia. Along with West Papua, this is perhaps one the lesser known of the disputes on the list. However, it’s also one that should be watched very closely.
The dispute is centered on the central African country of Cameroon. In 1884, Germany established a colony in the region that was then captured and divided between Britain and France during the First World War. The British held part was further divided into two administrative districts: the Northern and Southern Cameroons. When the French-held territory became independent as the Republic of Cameroon, in 1960, the area under British rule held a referendum to decide its future. While the northern part decided to unite with neighboring Nigeria, the southern Cameroons opted to merge with Cameroon.
This occurred on 1 October 1961 to form the Federal Republic of Cameroon. As is so often the case in these situations, the union proved to be unhappy and in 1972 the federation was abandoned in favour of a unitary state. In the decades that followed, resentment grew in the Anglophone region. And in late 2016 protests broke out that led to a harsh crackdown by the central government. On 1 October 2017, political forces in the region declared independence as the Republic of Ambazonia.
In response, the government launched a military campaign to reassert control. Since then, it’s estimated that the ensuing conflict has cost over 3,000 lives and displaced up to a million people. While there have been efforts to broker talks between the sides, these have failed to produce any sign of a peace deal.
In the meantime, this conflict, one of the most serious active armed disputes in Africa, if not the world, receives remarkably little international attention. Needless to say, this is a conflict that I hope to return to soon. So, if you haven’t already, do please consider subscribing and turning on the notifications. From there we head back north to Europe and Catalonia.
At one time, most of the attention on Spain was focused on the Basque Region. However, for the past decade, it’s Catalonia that’s taken the limelight. The problem really came to the fore in June 2010, when the Spanish Supreme Court ruled that elements of a 2006 Spanish law granting greater autonomy to Catalonia, the country’s second largest province, were unconstitutional.
This then prompted mass demonstrations. In the years that followed, support for a vote on independence grew. Following an election in 2015, the Catalan leadership organized a referendum on independence on 1 October 2017. Despite strong opposition from the Spanish government, 43% of the electorate turned out to vote.
Of this, 93% supported independence. 10 days later, on 10 October, the President of Catalonia declared that Catalonia was independent – but immediately put the declaration on hold pending talks with Spain. After Madrid refused discussions, the Catalan parliament unilaterally declared independence on 27 October 2017.
In response, the Spanish Government immediately suspended Catalonia’s autonomy and imposed direct rule. Within days, the effort to secede collapsed and, in October 2019, nine leaders of the attempted secession were jailed for 9-13 years for their role in the attempt to break away. While a strong strand of pro-independent sentiment remains in Catalonia, it’s hard to see how Spain will permit a formal referendum on the issue any time soon.
Finally, we head all the way across the Atlantic to the only major independence movement on the list in the americas: Quebec. In many ways, this is a strange case to include inasmuch as it seems to have gone very quiet in recent years. In 1763, France ceded Quebec to Britain. As a British territory, and then a province of Canada, Quebec nevertheless retained its French language identity.
In May 1980, it held a referendum on the creation of a new, loose relationship with Canada that would essentially be based on independence – but with certain shared functions, such as a currency. Although this plan was defeated by 59.6% to 40.4%, calls for change continued to grow. 15 years later, in 1995, another referendum was held. This time, the proposal was for full independence.
On this occasion, the proposal was defeated by the narrowest of margins: 50.6% to 49.4%. Since then, however, support for independence appears to have dropped. Polls now show that around 30 percent of the roughly 8.5 million Quebecois are in favour of breaking away.
Instead, priorities seem to be focused on retaining a French identity within Canada and pursuing greater cultural and economic autonomy – rather than outright independence. Nevertheless, despite its apparently subdued state, there is undoubtedly the possibility that the pro-independence campaign may see a resurgence again in the future. Meanwhile, it remains a very familiar independence campaign and without a doubt the most significant movement for sovereign statehood in the Americas.
So, there we have it. The next 10 on my list: Chuuk, West Papua, Somaliland, Kurdistan, Abkhazia, Palestine, Republic Srpska, Ambazonia, Catalonia and Quebec. Add to this the 10 cases I covered in my first post and you have my quick guide to 20 of the world’s main independence and secessionist movements. Of course, this is far from an exhaustive list of independence movements.
There are many many more cases around the world. For example, in Europe there’ll be those who would have included the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, Corsica, Greenland, the Basque Country, the Faroe Islands or even Wales. In Africa, there’s the Tuaregs in Mali, Zanzibar in Tanzania and even Afrikaner separatists in South Africa. In Asia, there’s Balochistan, Kashmir and Tibet. And in the Americas, we have Puerto Rico, as well as independence movements in Hawaii and Texas.
But, while these are interesting choices, to my mind the cases I’ve listed in these two posts are the 20 most prominent and most significant movements and disputes currently in existence around the world. But, of course if you think I got it wrong and that there any that I really should have included, or perhaps if there are any that you think I should definitely have kept off the list, do let me know in the comments below. And, remember, this is certainly not the final word on the issue. There’s always the possibility of a Part III. I hope you found that interesting.
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