Elia Bescotti's Blog

The logics of secession

February 8, 2018

Secession is a “much contested concept.”[1] Its definition depends, on the one hand, by the field of research in which it has been analysed: there are defining attempts under, for instance, the juridical, philosophical and political point of view. On the other hand, one of the disputes arises from the fact that the attempts to define secession lie on a continuum of restrictive and permissive definitions of secession. The field of research has a direct impact on the definition of secession accepted, moving from one edge of the continuum to the other according to different moral, theoretical or empirical assumptions. Nevertheless, there is a common characteristic among the different definitions of secession given by the scholars: secession “involves at least the withdrawal or detachment of territory and its population from the jurisdiction of an established state.”[2] Indeed, if we look at the root of the word secession it comes from the Latin noun secessio, linked to the verb secedo, a composition of the se and cedo, which means to depart, to retreat or to withdraw. Secession therefore means “to withdraw yourself” from something which is, in a general case, a political entity or, more specifically, a State. Nevertheless, we should point out some broadening and narrowing of the concept and define secession in a more detailed way. Indeed, in our analysis, we are excluding to consider decolonisation processes as secession: decolonisation processes did not regard the main corpus of the colonizing State and therefore is not related to its dismemberment.[3] Moreover, “in advocating decolonization, inhabitants of a colony cannot be accused of the betrayal of their co-nationals in the host state and of attempting to break up their ‘motherland’” because they did not participate to its political life, and hence had no possibility to “self-determine” their future.[4] Here, we will consider as secession as the detachment of a portion of territory from the territory of the State, because secessions directly threat the principle of territorial integrity.

In the case of States, secessionist attempts occur when a sub-group of the State wants to build another State, separate from the previous, according to different characteristics needed to mark the difference with the State they want to secede from and, therefore, justify secession. However, before continuing our discussion, we must clarify some points. Firstly, a claim of secession does not entail any right to secede. In fact, the international law does not foresee or involve any right to secession.[5] Nor it is our purpose to argue if this right exists or not. Despite secession theories in political science discuss whether secession is justifiable or not, our task is not to see if a secession can be justified or not, but to research which are its main drivers and characteristics, whether security is one of them, how important it is and which are the repercussions of secession on security issues.[6] To be clear, in our discussion we are not going to consider any right of secession at all, with the sole exception of the right of secessions provided in the Constitutions of States from which a part secedes. However, these theories offer good arguments about the reasons why secession happen and other theoretical implications.

Secession and self-determination of people might be linked, but they are not overlapped. The problem of conjugation of self-determination of people with territorial integrity of the States is still relevant: both rights provided in Chapter I of the UN charter respectively at Art. 1.2 and 2.4.[7] In this sense, one of the most relevant resolution adopted by the UN General assembly is 1514 of 14 December 1960. Through this resolution, the UN general assembly gave the first application of the right of self-determination of people, though underling that any attempt aimed at “the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”[8] Albeit the United Nations are not directly against the seceding attempts and the admission of States in the organization born after successful secessions (Sud Sudan is the last example provided, but we can also consider Bangladesh and East Timor) the general attitude of sovereign States, especially the States that gained their independence through the process of decolonisation (the one 1514 refers to) is the opposition to secessionist attempts. On the one hand, in the Final Act of the 1975 Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, States “from Vancouver to Vladivostok”[9] have adopted the statement on “The Equal Rights and Self-Determination of Peoples” where it is expressly declared that any right of self-determination of people must respect, among the others, the respect of territorial integrity.[10] On the other hand, those States which obtained independence from the process of decolonisation have always opposed strongly any attempt to secession from their territories, which have often brought to dramatic civil wars and ethnic conflicts between the boundaries of the same States which advocated the self-determination of people as the most important justification for their independence. Examples are clearly provided by the Biafra, Darfur, Eritrea, South Sudan, the failure of Somalia, East Timor, among which some were able to obtain international recognition and full independence, and therefore to secede, and some were not.[11]

We have therefore to make two big distinctions in order to understand this alleged double-standard of the right of self-determination of people: first, independence and secession are not the same thing, and if independence can be achieved through secession (which is debatable) this does not mean it is the only path; second, self-determination of people does not mean self-determination of ethnic groups. Indeed, demos and ethnos are not two interchangeable concepts: the former refers to an idea of citizenship and belonging to a political structure regardless of the cultural, linguistic, historical, religious or racial properties and “exists through its bedding in a political order;”[12] the latter refers to (some of) those very properties (and others) which are peculiar of that very ethnic group and functions as a basis of justification to distinguish it from the others. “The demos cannot be based on an exclusive ethnocultural concept—an idea of ethnic homogeneity. On the contrary, the collectivity of citizens that constitutes the demos encompasses heterogeneity.”[13] Of course, it is possible that (almost) “purely” composed ethnic States exist. Nevertheless, “people” is a broader concept than nation, ethnic or linguistic groups, race, et cetera, even in the nation-States, where, however, sub-groups clashes and claims of self-determination are still present. But, in this case, is arguable whether we are talking about the right of self-determination of people or of nations, religions, or ethnic groups.

Distinctive characteristics are at the basis of the definition of a common identity for the group that wants to secede. These are necessary to mark a difference with the entity the group wants to secede from, and are stressed to give relevance to the differences between the two groups. It is a political division in the sense we gave in the first chapter and replicates the friend/enemy binomial needed to define the “self” from the “other.” Indeed, regardless of the type of their characteristics, we will refer to seceding groups as “distinct communities.”[14] These distinct communities, through their leaders, are the ones who claim for secession. Therefore, secession can be considered as a “speech-act” as security is. Thus, in order to give relevance to the claim of secession there must be the same conditions of securitisation and therefore, mutatis mutandis, a secession claim must be socially effective, based on an authoritative claim and must address an existential difference, although socially constructed, historically rooted or even simply alleged. Of course, according to the degree of credibility of this difference, secession has several or few possibilities to happen, as it works with the securitisation of a threat. Indeed, if we have not argued yet the possibility to consider security issues as driver for secession, it is possible to see how secessionist claims work in the same way of securitization claims: they need to identify an “other” in order to define the true or alleged difference elapsing with them. In the case of secession, whichever the difference may be, they must be defined facing the identity of the State which the distinct communities try to secede from. But secession does not occur only with the identification of differences. Indeed, identity is only a part of the main fundaments on which a secession claim is based and can make it happen. There are two other pillars on which secession lean: territoriality and sovereignty.

For our purposes, the issue of territoriality is relevant for secession for two main reasons, linked one other. The first is that if the distinct community is not concentrated in a territorial area of the States it wants to relinquish and it does not represent the majority (relative or absolute) of the people included in that very area, a secession claim is unlikely to happen. Indeed, if the distinct community is widespread over all the territory of the State (Russians in Belarus) or in a part in which they do not constitute the majority of people (Tatars in Crimea), any secessionist claim of theirs is unlikely to be successful: on the one hand, they should secede the whole State from the State itself (which is nonsense) or, on the other, the majority of the population living in that very area and not belonging to that distinct community will oppose it, unless the distinct community successfully supported by an unopposed external force or undertakes a shameful action such as an ethnic cleansing and succeeds in it. They may claim for more rights or protection as a minority, and their claims will be successful according to several issues as the interest of the central State in protecting minorities or their weight at State level, but any secession would be simply impossible to happen.

This brings us to the second reason why territoriality is so important for any claim to secession: the need to draw the boundaries of the new State around the distinct community it includes is necessary to make clear the distinction with the rule of the relinquished States. The boundary itself does not imply any international recognition or settlement of disputes between the two States, neither the nature of these boundaries (for instance, fortified or not) is needed to define them, but they constitute a starting point necessary to understand where the new State is located and separated from the State the distinct community belonged to. Furthermore, a stress on the concept of separation is necessary: here we are not talking about generally isolated distinct communities within all the territory of a State, but only about the ones located near or on the external geographical boundaries of that State. In other words, the distinct communities, to secede from a State, need a second boundary beyond the one with the former State, otherwise they will be unable to interact successfully with the rest of the world and will get a temporary status of enclave inside a State until they will be suppressed by the State authority without any external support. Furthermore, these boundaries can be of two types: the border of a State or a seashore. In the first case, the bordering State must not intervene (directly or indirectly) in favour of the State opposing secession to let the secession happen. In the second, the capability of naval defence and the possibility to communicate overseas can grant a de facto secession.

The other pillar on which a claim of secession is based is sovereignty. “Sovereignty is central to secession, as it is the essential characteristic of statehood to which secessionist communities aspire.”[15] The opposition of sovereign States to recognise the right of secession lies in the fact that any secession is a direct threat to the sovereignty of the State itself. Over time, sovereignty has become a symbol of privilege and superiority: it has become the recognition of a legal status, the Statehood, and gives itself the power to recognise other States.[16] This has become the widespread meaning of independence and self-determination of people: the acquisition of a sovereign status on a legal rule. Nevertheless, if a State is striving with any secessionist attempt, this means that its sovereignty is challenged and is alleged.

Secession from a State cannot occur if another kind of rule is not imposed over the secessionist territory. Since the issue of sovereignty is at the base of the modern State, a seceding distinct community cannot claim to be a State if it does not reach a degree of sovereignty enough sufficient to get rid of the general rule of the relinquished State. This does not mean that any State, including the relinquished one, cannot pose its protectorate or hegemony over the secessionist State. Nevertheless, the source of sovereignty is not its internal rule anymore, but it stems from other juridical sources, for instance the constitution of the secessionist State. In fact, it can even be possible that secession brings to the sovereignty of another State over the seceded territory. This will therefore bring to an annexation of the territory from another State, and therefore the intervention of an external player in the secession dynamic. This intervention, however, can occur even without an annexation, for foreign interest might come into play to take the most advantage from a secession before someone else could do it, even if they condemn this act by formally accepting the territorial integrity of States.

If viewed in this framework, secession is certainly a threat to security. It undermines the sovereignty, the territorial integrity and the capabilities of a State and brings to a loss of power both in absolute and relative terms, with all the territorial and geographical problems it entails, such as the presence of natural resources or simply the access to sea. Furthermore, if the distinct community the secessionist group belongs to is transnational or it simply permeates the boundaries of the State, this might have serious implications at the transnational and international level, susceptible to spill-over in other States and leading to a domino effect and a general redefinition of the boundaries between and within States, especially the weak ones. This is also true for the transnational distinct community of secessionist groups, for whether a group is able to successfully secede from another State, it might encourage other secessionist groups to push for more rights or alleged self-determination. Indeed, secession should not be considered as a solution, but as a symptom.[17] A symptom of some conditions changing within the boundaries of a State or at international level.

We argued that, as a fundamental basis to make a claim for secession successful, we need three conditions: the presence of a distinct community with a different identity from the rest of the State, a precise territory, neither widespread along the whole territory of the State nor located in certain areas where it cannot count on it majority of population, and not being encapsulated as an enclave within the boundaries of that State, but with access to another State and/or sea, and a claim for sovereignty, which constitute the will of Statehood and undermines the sovereignty of the State susceptible of relinquishment. Nevertheless, secession occurs only in some situation. The degree of satisfaction and loyalty of a distinct community of a State lies on a continuum and its movement is triggered by four main groups of variables: the benefits of membership, the costs of secession, the costs of membership and the benefits of secession.[18] Under the first category of variables, the benefits of membership, we find security benefits such as protection from external threats (as we underlined in the previous chapter), economic benefits, such as the absence of trade tariffs, common infrastructures or redistribution of welfare, and social benefits, as the possibility to develop broader social relations and network outside the boundaries of a distinct community. Among the second group, the costs of secession, there are the State opposition to secession, which seems to be obvious while it is not, and, as we saw, the international hostility. Thirdly, the costs of membership are related to “moral and cultural threats of the distinct community,” that is a threat to their physical security or identity, especially concerning religion, language and culture, starting from basic discrimination by the authorities to genocide, ethnic cleansing and deportation, bringing the distinct community to view secession as the only solution for its relief. Finally, the benefits of secession involve elite interests, generally driving the secessionist movements both for the interest of the community and of themselves, and the contested principle of self-determination. To make secession happen or attempted, an increase or decrease of these variables (namely, an increase in the costs of membership or of the benefits of secession and/or a decrease of the benefits of membership or cost of secession) will change the attitude and the loyalty of the distinct community towards the State the belong to.[19]

Nevertheless, the stress on protection of minorities rights or the threat to their security has been vastly adopted as a sufficient reason to attempt secession, and it is often considered as the sole or a sufficient moral justification to secede from a State.[20] Indeed, albeit it is considered as the last resort among the possible choices, it seems that the security issue counts more than the others in considering whether secession is a good option or not. Of course, not every secession is based on a physical threat, and wars can arise even in this context. Yet, even a threat to the identity of the distinct community, may it be its usual way of life, can be, if not the trigger, a good justification to start a war of secession, as it happened in the United States.[21] The securitization of the identity issue, independently from the degree of threat posed by the central government, and regardless from its truthfulness or mere presumption, is always present in the processes of secession from a State. The right of self-determination of people is called into question not by chance. Furthermore, when secession becomes the last resort in order to protect the distinct community, its identity and its culture, and it is chosen, the threat to their security is perhaps real. Nevertheless, clearly an attempt to secession is necessary to draw a boundary not only with the State, but also with its identity. Although the right of secession for the republics was provided in the Yugoslav and Soviet constitution, all the seceding attempts made had some identity reason regarding the re-definition of boundaries or the following ethnic conflicts occurred after the end of the Cold War.

Finally, as we briefly pointed out, secession is definitely a security issue, for it threatens not only the State identity, but can propagate among the international system, especially in those close unstable areas where the sovereignty of the central government is questioned. Secession implicitly weakens the strength of a State, and, in doing this, it threats the security of the neighbouring States too. However, secession can, in some exceptional cases as Singapore, be a stabilising solution, for it can balance the ethnic composition of a State, and, if it does not compromise the relative power of a State (as happened with the dissolution of the Kingdom of Sweden and Norway), it can be allowed, even without incurring in the risk of propagation.

[1] A. Pavkovic, “Secession: a much contested concept,” in D. Kingsbury and C. Laoutides (editors), Territorial Separatism in Global Politics: Causes, Outcomes and Resolution, Routledge, 2015, pp. 13-28

[2] Ibidem, p. 15

[3] Wood, quoted in ibidem, p. 22

[4] Ibidem, p. 26

[5] M. Freeman, “The priority of function over structure. A new approach to secession,” in P. B. Lehning (editor), Theories of secession, Routledge, London and New York, 2005, p. 13

[6] For theories of secession discussing about the right to secede or not see P. Lehning (ed), Theories of secession

[7] Chapter I of UN Charter, https://treaties.un.org/doc/publication/ctc/uncharter.pdf [retrieved on 25/08/2017]

[8] Resolution 1514: “Declaration of granting independence to colonial countries and peoples.” United Nation Resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly, 14/12/1960, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/RESOLUTION/GEN/NR0/152/88/IMG/NR015288.pdf?OpenElement [retrieved on 20/09/2017]

[9] This is a formula often used to define the member States of the OSCE

[10] Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, Helsinki, 1975, pp. 4, 5, 7, http://www.osce.org/helsinki-final-act?download=true [retrieved on 20/09/2017]

[11] V. O. Bartkus, The dynamic of secession. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004, pp. 73-78

[12] P. B. Lehning (editor), Theories of secession, p. 9

[13] Ibidem

[14] This definition is borrowed from V. Bartkus, The dynamics of secession, pp. 10-11

[15] Ibidem, p. 218

[16] Ibidem, p. 220; L. Bishai, “Altered States. Secession and the problems of liberal theory,” in B. Lehning (ed.) Theories of secession, p. 105

[17] L. Bishai, “Altered States,” p. 106

[18] V. Bartkus, The dynamics of secession, pp. 31-110

[19] Ibidem, pp. 115-215

[20] Ibidem, pp. 79-95, B. Lehning (ed.) Theories of secession¸ A. Pavković, “Secession: a much contested concept”

[21] For further readings on the identity difference within the United States, see C. Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, Viking Penguin, 2011

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