From Scotland to Iraq or Hong Kong, from Ukraine to Mali, many potential disputes or actual conflicts have erupted because populations aspire to systems of governance recognizing their right to manage their own affairs. In case such a right is suppressed by domination, the struggle for autonomy can turn violent and even lead to a fight for separation or full-fledged independence.
From Scotland to Iraq or Hong Kong, from Ukraine to Mali, many potential disputes or actual conflicts have erupted because populations aspire to systems of governance recognizing their right to manage their own affairs. In case such a right is suppressed by domination, the struggle for autonomy can turn violent and even lead to a fight for separation or full-fledged independence. Both history and the current realities abound in examples of situations in which internal autonomy has offered the best solution to conflicts but was rejected or ignored, thus paving the way for senseless bloodshed. It is time for the international community to learn those lessons and act in a preventive fashion to uphold autonomy as a conflict prevention mechanism.
What is there in common between the recent referendum on the independence of Scotland, the future one on Catalonia, the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, the armed rebellion in eastern Ukraine, the takeover of parts of Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State, and the alliance between jihadist groups and the Tuareg separatist movement in Mali? The same as between the case of Kosovo, the explosion of Libya, the Aceh conflict in Indonesia and the action of the movement for Muslim Mindanao in the Philippines. How is it possible to establish any links between so many different conflicts while all first-year students in International Relations are taught about the specificity of each conflict?
In all the above-mentioned cases, internal autonomy was at stake. Whenever it was rejected, cancelled or neglected by a dominating power, a conflict erupted that exacerbated differences and stimulated a radical approach towards separation and independence.
The Scottish Referendum
Of course, the recent relationship between the United Kingdom (UK) and Scotland was not a violent one. After his election in 1997, Tony Blair even granted an unprecedented degree of autonomy to the Scottish parliament and government through devolution (before doing so again one year later with Northern Ireland). However, the Scottish nationalists considered that Scotland was entitled to gain more control over its natural resources and defend its national identity and prosperity which were, in their eyes, threatened by both globalization and the prospect of a UK withdrawal from the European Union (EU). The commitment by the UK government to grant even more autonomy to Edinburgh (which will also benefit the other nations of the UK), while seen as ‘too little too late’ by the nationalists, most probably convinced a majority of Scots to remain within the UK. This lesson should inspire the Spanish government, which faces the possibility of secession by Catalonia. Spain has already transferred a great deal of power to its provinces, but there still is room for negotiating even more.
The eastern Ukrainian provinces
In the case of Ukraine, a centralised state, the eastern provinces, even in the third decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, still consider themselves as closer to Russia, whose language they speak and towards which they turn for trade. They remained loyal to the central Ukrainian government when one of them, President Viktor Yanukovych, leader of the Party of Regions, ruled over the country. But when he was overthrown by a popular revolution initiated by western Ukrainians aspiring to economic assistance and support in the rule of law from the EU, the eastern provinces rejected Kiev’s rule altogether, accusing the central government of being made of “fascists” financially supported by the West. In its turn, the newly elected government reacted to those signs of rebellion by calling the leaders of the separatist movements “terrorists”, taking measures seen in the East as provocative such as cancelling the teaching of the Russian language, and opting for a military operation to quell the revolt. At the same time, Russia played both a dangerous game of indirect military intervention and a sensible approach of calling for a negotiated solution based on comprehensive autonomy (called “federalization”) for the eastern provinces. This is the thrust of the Minsk Protocol that was eventually accepted by both sides with the mediation of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
The Tuareg in Mali
In Mali, a country that, like most African nations, inherited its borders from the colonial rulers, the vast northern region was inhabited among others by Tuareg nomads, who had been seeking autonomy from the central government ever since independence in the early 1960s. Despite some attempts to integrate the Tuaregs into the Malian armed forces, the Tuareg movements clashed militarily with the regular army. But the conflict took another turn when heavy weapons started to flow from collapsing Libya and jihadist groups seized that opportunity to spread their domination throughout the region. The result of many years of refusal to grant autonomy forced the French armed forces to take the lead in a military operation, subsequently supported by the African Union, to help the Malian government re-establish its authority over the whole territory. There is no doubt today that any sustainable political solution needs to include a large degree of autonomy for the northern territory coupled with power-sharing arrangements ensuring national unity. Stability in Mali and the whole Sahel region will also be improved if the current Libyan chaos is addressed by a negotiated autonomy agreement among the various tribal groups and factions vying for power and control.
The Sunni provinces in Iraq
In Iraq, a country deeply divided between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, which had been characterized by Sunni domination, a majority vote granted power to a Shia-controlled government. The Kurds, made self-confident by their own natural resources and strong national identity, imposed their full autonomy, up to the point of including into the Iraqi Constitution a clause of superiority of Kurdish law in case of conflict with a national Iraqi law. However the Al-Maliki government rejected all the demands for more autonomy from the Sunnis, still collectively and abusively associated with the Saddam regime. As a result, when the jihadist groups that thrived in the civil war in Syria began to spread over the Sunni regions of Iraq, they were supported by the local populations, and had no difficulty in repelling the weak Iraqi armed forces and establishing an Islamic State in those regions. The current conflict will not escape a new military phase with the intervention of a new US-led coalition, but those thinking of a political solution for the future of Iraq have already accepted the idea of a form of partition of the country between autonomous regions. The failure to achieve this will no doubt lead to a break-up of the Iraqi state, with incalculable consequences for the whole Middle East.
Other cases: New Caledonia, Aceh, Bangsamoro, Sahara
Several other countries have wisely understood that granting a rebellious population a negotiated form of autonomy was the most sustainable method for avoiding escalation of a conflict while leaving further options opened for the future. France has done so with its overseas territory of New Caledonia, after separatist violence erupted in 1988, by agreeing on an evolutionary status of comprehensive autonomy, with devolution of political and economic powers not only to the local government but also to the Kanak minority. This status provides for a referendum on self-determination, but all parties have until now agreed to postpone it until 2018 to preserve the peace.
In Indonesia, after independence in 1945, the province of Aceh began to rebel against the central government that had not fulfilled its pledge of granting self-rule. The Free Aceh movement conducted a military struggle against Jakarta until 2005, when a peace agreement was mediated by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, providing for a large form of internal autonomy.
In the Philippines, also, a Comprehensive Agreement was concluded in 2014 to put an end to the hostilities between the Moro National Liberation Front and the Manila government, confirming and enlarging the status of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao already established in 1989 and now known as Bangsamoro.
For its part, Morocco proposed to the United Nations (UN) in 2007 that the conflict over Western Sahara be settled through the negotiation among all the parties (the Moroccan government, Algeria, Mauritania and the Polisario) of a status of broad political, economic, cultural and social autonomy of that territory within the Moroccan kingdom. Although negotiations have yet to address the substance of this status, the UN Security Council has repeatedly welcomed the Moroccan efforts as “serious and credible.”
Successful Statutes of Autonomy
In other states, a status of autonomy has been functioning for many years to general satisfaction, for instance between: Denmark and Greenland or the Faroe Islands; Finland and the Swedish-speaking Åland Islands; Serbia and multi-ethnic Vojvodina. Italy has granted home rule to five regions (Sardinia, Sicily, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, Aosta Valley and Friuli-Venezia Giulia), which possess powers in relation to legislation, administration and finance. In China, Hong Kong and Macau enjoyed a special administrative status with little interference from the central government until recently when Beijing attempted to control the electoral process in Hong Kong. In any case, such autonomy is compatible with centralised states and does not need federalism to be effective.
In a globalised world where new forces and new actors question the validity of the Westphalian model of the nation-state, the infra-state level provides more opportunities for reconciling the need for economically viable units with peoples’ aspirations for self-governance.
An expert seminar was held in 2009 at the GCSP on the question “Can Autonomy Fulfil the Right to Self-determination?”  One of its conclusions was that, in some cases, separation or full-fledged independence is inevitable, when “one side asserts territorial integrity, the other asserts claims, and neither side’s preferences can be fully realised through autonomy. This is the situation in the Caucasus, Cyprus, Kashmir, and leads to frozen conflicts. Some governments fear autonomy as a slippery slope inevitably leading to independence. In that sense, Kosovo can be seen as a moral hazard.”  One could add the case of Palestine, whose recognition as an independent state was not only predicated in the early UN Partition Plan but has been vindicated by years of resistance to occupation.
In other cases, not only does autonomy “allow for self-determination and is compatible with a central state’s sovereignty,” but it can help solve or prevent a conflict. “Law can be interpreted differently; it can be aligned to reality in different cases; legal and practical barriers can be overcome.” Finally, autonomy can offer such sustainable solutions only if some sense of conciliation and trust exists among the parties, as well as a sense of urgency to solve an existing or potential conflict. A resolution based on a process of autonomy can act to prevent the frustration resulting from uncertainty about the future.”  In addressing conflicts in ethnically or religiously fragmented societies such as Afghanistan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Yemen to name a few more, the international community would be well inspired to look at the successful cases of autonomy as hopeful conflict resolution mechanisms. But this will require renouncing policies of authoritarian domination for the common good.