Catalan Independence and the Human Right of Self-Determination

By: Mikka A. Burrell

The life of the Catalan is an act of continuous affirmation . . . It is because of this that the defining element of the Catalan psychology is not reason, as for the French; metaphysics, as for the Germans; empiricism, as for the English; intelligence, as for the Italians; or mysticism, as for the Castilians. In Catalonia, the primary feature is the desire to be.

-- Jaume Vicens Vives, Catalan historian



With approximately 7.5 million inhabitants, the Autonomous Community of Catalonia is the second-most populous municipality in Spain and is anchored by the world-class city of Barcelona, which is the seventh-most populous urban area in the European Union.[1] For a bit of perspective, Catalonia is larger than EU countries like Denmark, Finland, Ireland, and Luxembourg.[2] While technically a part of Spain, Catalonia has preserved its own distinct culture and language over several centuries.[3] As a result, many Catalans do not consider themselves Spanish. This view has proven controversial in other parts of Spain, but it is widely considered to be a legitimate sentiment within Catalonia.[4]


The Catalan Political Climate

Naturally, the strong sense of Catalan national identity that many Catalans feel is reflected in local politics. Catalan nationalist parties, such as the now-defunct Democratic Convergence of Catalonia and Convergence and Union, have expressed their desire to declare formal independence from Spain. Most recently, the independence coalition Junts Pel Sí[5] has made headlines in Spain for thrusting the issue of Catalan independence into the spotlight on several occasions.[6] In 2014, the coalition, led by Catalan politician Artur Mas, defied objections from Madrid and held a straw poll for independence.[7] Unsurprisingly, 80.7 percent of the approximately 2.25 million voters voted in favor of Catalan independence.[8]

Although the 2014 vote organized by Artur Mas was non-binding, the clamor for Catalan independence has only intensified in recent years. This has resulted in increasingly more hostile responses from Madrid. In response to the 2014 vote, the Spanish government charged Mas with civil disobedience and sought to bar him from holding public office for ten years.[9] Mas stood trial in February 2017, with over 40,000 Catalan separatists protesting outside the Barcelona courthouse.[10] In March 2017, Mas was convicted barred from holding public office for two years and fined €36,500.[11]


International Law and The Right of Self-Determination

With Mas’s conviction, it became abundantly clear that the Spanish government would thwart any actions taken to achieve Catalan independence and punish separatist leaders. In response, scholars and separatists alike have looked to international law for possible guidance on the issue. One theory that has gained recognition is the view that Catalonia calls for independence under the international law right of self-determination[12], which is enumerated in Article I of the Charter of the United Nations. Article I of the Chart states in pertinent part:

The Purposes of the United Nations are . . . [t]o develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principal of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace . . . .[13]

The right of self-determination also finds support in other related international laws, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [14] and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.[15]

While the right to self-determination is enumerated in various international law documents, scholars differ on whether Catalonia can actually achieve independence under international law and what factors are relevant in determining such. Professor Alexandra Rangel suggests that the relevant factors for determining whether a people can achieve independence include location, the will to exist, denial of “internal” self-determination, and brutal oppression.[16] Professor Rangel expresses doubts that the Catalans can prove under international law that they have been denied “internal” self-determination, much less brutal oppression, within the Spanish state.[17] Professor Rangel primarily supports this contention by emphasizing the fact that Catalans have full and equal rights as Spanish citizens and have a degree of self-government afforded them, as guaranteed by the Spanish Constitution.[18]

On the other hand, Catalan scholar and economics professor Josep Desquens argues that Catalan culture and language is neither understood nor accepted in Spain, thus it is neither protected nor fostered.[19] Desquens also points out that the Catalans have suffered three centuries of linguistic and cultural discrimination, most notably under General Francisco Franco's 36-year dictatorship.[20] Such discrimination could arguably be proof of the denial of internal self-determination and oppression that international law purports that a group of people must prove before it can exercise remedial secession. However, Desquens acknowledges that Catalonia has mostly regained many of its institutions since the end of Franco’s regime and enjoys a high degree of self-governance.[21]


It remains to be seen whether Catalonia will ever achieve formal independence and secession from Spain. International law on the subject of self-determination, while enumerated in various United Nations documents, is still unclear in its application. Some scholars express the view that independence based on the right of self-determination may only be achievable as a means for groups of peoples to escape colonialism or severe human rights abuses, while others point out that international case law is too obscure or inconsistent on the matter to know how it would apply, especially in the context of the Catalan independence movement.[22]


[1] Wikipedia, Catalonia, https://en.wikipedia/wiki/Catalonia.

[2] Josep Desquens, Europe’s Stateless Nations in the Era of Globalization: The Case for Catalonia’s Secession from Spain, 6 Bologna Cent. J. Int’l Affairs 85 (2003).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Catalan for “Together for Yes.”

[6] Raphael Minder, Catalonia Overwhelmingly Votes for Independence From Spain in Straw Poll, N.Y. Times (Nov. 9, 2014),

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Raphael Minder, Artur Mas, Catalonia Ex-Leader, Stands Trial as Thousands Protest, N.Y. Times (Feb. 6, 2017),

[10] Id.

[11] Esteban Duarte & Thomas Gualtieri, Former Catalan Leader Convicted Over 2014 Vote on Independence, Bloomberg (March 13, 2017),

[12] Alexandra Rangel, Catalonia and the Right of Self-Determination, Int’l L. Perspectives (Oct. 12, 2013),

[13] U.N. Charter art. 1, ¶ 2.

[14]  International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Dec. 16, 1966, S. Treaty Doc. No. 95-20, 6 I.L.M. 368 (1967), 999 U.N.T.S. 171.

[15] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Dec. 16, 1966, S. Treaty Doc. No. 95-19, 6 I.L.M. 360 (1967), 993 U.N.T.S. 3.

[16] Rangel, supra note 12.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Desquens, supra note 2.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Ieva Vezbergaite, Remedial Secession as an Exercise of the Right of Self-Determination (2011) (thesis, Central European University).