Secession Research, Part One

Secession Research, Part One

By Jason Sorens

February 23, 2005

Secession has been a hot topic for political scientists and political philosophers for over 10 years now, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Ethiopia. In this article I take a look at the political philosophers’ take on the issue of secession.

Generally, the positive and normative theorists of secession have not talked to each other much. Positive theorists have not asked questions such as, “What is the appropriate governmental response to secessionism?,” and normative theorists have not entertained the question, “What are the real-world circumstances that encourage claims of secession?” That chasm between “ought” and “is” is starting to close, and two recent books coming out of the political philosophy debate give some space to considering the implications of empirical findings: “Contextualizing Secession,” edited by Coppietiers and Sakwa, and “Secession and Self-Determination,” edited by Stephen Macedo and Allen Buchanan.

There are three main camps in the debate on secession. Choice theorists such as Harry Beran argue that any group of people should be allowed to secede, so long as they vote by a majority in a referendum for secession, and respect the rights of minorities in the new state. Nationalists such as Margaret Moore argue that only national groups may secede under such terms. Just-cause theorists such as Allen Buchanan argue that there is no right to secede in “just” states (basically, countries that don’t engage in mass, wholesale killing of their own citizens), but that democidal states should permit a right to secede for groups suffering from their injustice.

So far the restrictive just-cause theories are getting the better of the debate. The main problem is that leftish academics fret that secession would allow the wealthy to secede and escape redistributive taxation. Also, the standard refrain against permissive theories is that they would permit the formation of 10,000 tiny states. (Never mind that if this fragmentation were undesirable, people would likely never vote for it.)

For the sake of argument, let’s concede those points, both highly debatable. The problem is that normative theorists have not considered the real-world consequences of repressing secessionism. In advanced democracies such as Britain, Belgium, Italy, and Canada, secessionist parties contest elections, win seats, and occasionally even participate in government. Secessionism is not associated with violence in advanced democracies. The main exception to this rule is Basque terrorist group ETA, which actually proves the rule, because ETA formed during the repressive Franco years and has progressively lost support since Spain democratized. (Most people don’t realize that most Basque nationalists reject violence and are currently pursuing autonomy – virtual independence – through the ballot box.) Northern Ireland is a case of irredentism, not secessionism – irredentism is an attempt to separate territory from one state and cede it to another. Irredentist movements tend to be more violent.

In many other countries, including some less-developed democracies, the central government proscribes secessionist parties and activism. India even has a clause in its constitution, inserted in 1962, that forbids candidates for office from talking about secession. India is a democracy that is wracked by secessionist violence. From the ongoing conflicts in Kashmir and the northeast to the bloody rebellion of the Sikhs in Punjab that raged from 1984 to 1991, the Indian government has found itself killing hundreds of thousands of its own citizens to defend its intolerant policy on secession. Turkey has taken an even harsher line toward the Kurds, at one point banning the Kurdish language. Sudan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Yugoslavia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Zaire, Burma, and Pakistan are other countries that have attempted to suppress secessionism and have paid a heavy price in blood.

The relevant question therefore is not, “Is secession desirable and something to be promoted?” The question is, “Will allowing peaceful secession discourage violent rebellion?” Whether or not secession is desirable (as a libertarian, I think it is quite often positively desirable to reduce the geographical scope of states), permitting secession to occur through a negotiated, constitutional process is always a better course than attempting to crush secession. The political philosophers who try to limit the right to secede to special cases are implicitly placing their imprimatur on sanguinary, repressive policies.

Next time: the state of empirical research on secession.


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