The Impact of Scottish Independence on Future Natural Resource Conflicts

Today, 18 September, the people of Scotland will cast their votes to decide whether or not Scotland should leave the United Kingdom to become an independent state. On the surface, it may seem obscure to link countries in Africa, the Middle East or South America to the process of Scottish independence. The fundamental reason for doing so, however, is natural resources.

Foreign governments have generally, and prudently, stated that this is a domestic issue, to be decided upon by the Scottish people. While such a stance is in line with respect for self-determination, however, today’s world is not one in which events can take place within a vacuum. Instead, events such as the Scottish independence referendum have the potential to ripple, affecting seemingly unconnected countries thousands of miles away.

The governments that have closely followed the unfolding events are those with a vested interest in a strong UK, such as the US, and also those who are cautious about secessionist movements in their own countries, such as Spain and Belgium. However, given the centrality of natural resources to Scottish independence, some of the world’s more fragile states, that do not necessarily have a direct interest in the outcome of the referendum, should also be paying close attention.

Currently, the UK is the EU’s largest producer of oil, the vast majority of which is located in the North Sea off the east coast of Scotland. The Scottish National Party, in power in Scotland, and the driving force behind independence, has asserted that the North Sea oil revenues should be divided based upon the “median line” principle. Leading experts, such as Professor Alex Kemp have supported this claim, which would entitle an independent Scotland to 90 per cent of the UK’s oil revenues. On the other hand, Sir Paul Collier, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Blavatinik School of Government, Oxford University, says there are serious‘ethical, legal and practical’ implications of this claim.

It is this emerging debate which has far-reaching implications for governments with little other interest in Scottish independence. It is common practice in Europe, and in many other countries throughout the world, that the dividends from natural resources belong to the entire population, not just those closest to the source. There are no international legal precedents for how the rights to natural resources should be divided in the event of the separation of a resource-rich nation, such as the UK. If the “median line” principle is the accepted method for division in post-independence negotiations then Collier argues that this could set a “dangerous global precedent with lethal consequences”.

The most likely conflict to occur over the North Sea oil following independence would be a war of words between the Scottish Government and Westminster. However, in other parts of the world, violent conflicts over natural resources, such as that between Sudan and South Sudan, are becoming more frequent and represent an increasingly grave threat to stability and development. If an independent Scotland were given the expected 90 per cent share of North Sea oil revenues based purely upon geographical proximity then the fear is that this could have serious implications for how other contexts resolve contested natural resources.

Already we have seen instances of violent conflict in Tanzania and Nigeria when local populations have tried to assert a claim to natural resources within their vicinity. Natural resources can offer extremely lucrative dividends and the Scottish Government is basing a great deal of its economic forecasting upon expected oil revenues. Therefore, it would be unsurprising if people living close to sources or potential sources of natural resources in other parts of the world were to analyze the outcome in Scotland and deduce that they too should be the primary beneficiaries of the resource revenues.

Some commentators have suggested that the reason for Greenland backing exploratory drilling in the Arctic is primarily because without the expected oil profits it would not realistically be able to financially support itself if it wished to become independent from Denmark. While armed conflict is similarly unlikely in Greenland, there are many regions of the world where similar incentives exist, but where conflict risk factors – such as underdevelopment, poor provisions of basic infrastructure and corrupt governing authorities – are far more acute. In these more fragile settings, an attempt by the population of a producing region to secede from a territory could potentially result in an escalation of violence either by oppressive government authorities or as a resort to violence by the local population. In the worst case scenarios this could lead to a treacherous downwards spiral into civil war causing mass devastation and destruction.

Of course, there is little the international community can do to intervene in the Scottish referendum or indeed to influence the outcome of post-independence negotiations, except to voice their opinions if they feel it is necessary and appropriate. Furthermore, the populace of Scotland should be free to make this enormous decision free from external interest and should be able to base their decision on what will best serve the people of Scotland. If the post-independence negotiations result in an outcome whereby Scotland does receive the 90 per cent share then it will be extremely important for national governments, international organizations and civil society to anticipate grievances in producing regions and to ensure that these grievances do not escalate into armed conflict. This will require a multi-tool, multi-level approach, based upon principles of international law, to ensure that the root causes of any potential resource conflict, or resource motivated secession, is addressed in an effective manner.

When Scots go to the polls not only will they be making a decision which could drastically alter their own future but their decision also has the potential to impact communities and populations in some of the most vulnerable parts of the world. Therefore, the international community should pay close attention to the outcome of the Scottish referendum, especially in the event of a ‘yes’ vote.

Natalie Palmer is an Autumn intern at The Hague Institute for Global Justice.

Further Reading

Completed: Conflict Prevention in The Hague

This pilot project is part of the Institute's international research on City Responsibility: The Role of Municipalities in Conflict Prevention, which aims to understand how municipal…


Active: Distinguished Speaker Series

The Distinguished Speaker Series (DSS) showcases eminent practitioners in international affairs and is the centerpiece of the Institute’s high-level engagement with practitioners and academics in the city…