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Archive for the ‘secession’ Category

Constitute.org is a useful website designed by political scientists to let researchers search for and compare constitutional texts on particular topics. Here for instance is a search on secession clauses. Although one of the site’s creators, Zachary Elkins, says that 22 states contemplate some process for state divorce, only three constitutions expressly authorize some part of the country to secede: Ethiopia, Liechtenstein, and St. Kitts and Nevis. Ethiopia lets each people or nationality secede by a supermajority vote of its legislature, Liechtenstein lets each commune secede (I believe this was an addition of the 2003 constitution), and St. Kitts and Nevis lets Nevis secede by a supermajority referendum vote.

In addition to these, Britain’s Northern Ireland Act of 1998 lets the majority of Northern Irelanders decide to join the Republic of Ireland, and the constitution of Uzbekistan lets Karakalpakstan secede with the consent of the Uzbekistan government.

It would be interesting to see how many states define themselves as “indivisible,” thus tying a government’s hands and preventing it from authorizing secession. A search on the term brings up some irrelevant cases, but 72 constitutions contain the term.

By the way, the Prince of Liechtenstein is a moderate libertarian, and their constitution is fairly consistent with the philosophy. Check out his book on the topic.

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A few takeaways from the 55-45% victory for No in the Scottish independence referendum:

  1. The polls overestimated support for independence, just as in the 1995 Quebec referendum. Secession from a well-established democracy is extremely difficult due to voters’ risk-aversion and status quo bias.
  2. Scotland’s right to decide elicited salutary promises of decentralization from the British government. My book found that countries with legal secession saw more decentralization than countries without, and countries with legal secession never recentralized power in the post-World War 2 era, according to the measure of regional autonomy I used.
  3. While Westminster is likely to follow through on some additional powers for Scotland, they are not likely to approach anything like “devolution max.” For one thing, the Barnett formula will continue, suggesting the Scottish government’s budget will remain heavily dependent on transfers. For another, significant powers for Scotland will require wholesale constitutional reform, particularly to deal with the West Lothian Question, and there are many obstacles to a solution to that problem. Finally, the scale of No’s victory will reduce the urgency for British leaders to get something done. I will be very much surprised if a bill is produced to give Scotland autonomy equivalent to that enjoyed by, say, New Hampshire, let alone the Isle of Man.
  4. There’s going to be a lot of ignorant commentary about what this means for Catalonia. It means very little. Catalonia will proceed toward its own vote on independence. Secessionism isn’t contagious across borders, nor is declining secessionism. If anything, the No camp’s victory might persuade the Spanish government to allow a Catalan vote — but I wouldn’t count on it.

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I delivered this brief talk to a Model UN conference at Dartmouth on March 28. Here is the text of my remarks.
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My topic for tonight is “The Right to Self-Determination in International Law and Practice.” The right to self-determination is one of the most controversial concepts in international relations today. The government of Russia has cited it as a justification for its annexation of Crimea following a doubtfully free and certainly unfair referendum in that territory. The government of Catalonia has cited it in its effort to hold a truly democratic referendum on independence from Spain later this year. What does the right to self-determination mean in international law? And how well does international practice actually conform to international law?

The right to self-determination of peoples is found in the original United Nations Charter, which states among its purposes, “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.” The two original UN human rights instruments, the ICCPR and ICESCR, also guarantee the right of self-determination to “all peoples.”

But what is a “people”? That was left undefined. The UN developed a list of “non-self-governing territories” whose status was to be monitored. Originally, the right to self-determination for these territories was not meant to include a right to immediate independence. Article 73 of the original UN Charter merely provides that member states administering non-self-governing territories ensure their “political, economic, social, and educational advancement,” and assist the “progressive development of their free political institutions.”

In the 1940s and 1950s, anticolonial movements emerged in Africa and Asia to fight for immediate independence, and frequently faced stiff military opposition from their imperial masters. The major colonial powers gradually realized that they could not prevent many of their territories from claiming independence. Only in 1960 did the UN adopt the “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.” This resolution affirmed that the right of self-determination meant that every non-self-governing territory was to have a chance to decide its own political status, whether integration with the metropole, a status of “free association” with the metropole, or independence.

The criterion for determining whether a territory belonged on the list for decolonization was that it be “geographically separate” and “distinct ethnically and/or culturally from the country administering it.” This criterion has come to be known as the “salt water test”: only if a territory is separated from its metropole by salt water does it have the right to self-determination under international law.

Clearly then, the right to self-determination under international law was never meant to be applied to secessionists in the classic sense. It was a tool for decolonization. This fact does not mean that secession is illegal under international law, only that member states of the United Nations are not required to give secessionist regions the opportunity to determine their own political status. Russia’s justification for its forcible seizure of Crimea is therefore wrong.

International law itself is merely the creation of the governments that happen to exist on the globe. It would be surprising if existing governments were to set up a legal framework for their own dissolution. The “salt water test” is morally arbitrary, and it does not seem to have any rationale in conflict prevention or reduction.

There is another concept of the right to self-determination: a moral concept. Last year, (more…)

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With the ongoing tension over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, now would be a good time to talk about the biggest myths people believe about the origins of secessionist movements around the world (even though Crimea is a case of irredentism not secessionism).

  1. Myth: Secession is contagious. Back in the 1990s, journalists worried a lot that the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Ethiopia heralded some broader worldwide trend toward the splintering of the state. Even some scholars indulged talk of our “neomedieval” future of microstates. Now, with secession referendums in Scotland and Catalonia on the docket, a secessionist party gaining support in Quebec, that online referendum in Veneto, and recent events in the post-Soviet space, I’m seeing similar questions about whether this is a new “trend.”

    Fact: Secession happens because of particular circumstances, not contagion. Scholars have looked at the evidence every which way, and in no case have they found evidence that secessionism spreads from country to country. The classic piece here is Ayres and Saideman (2000). I have also looked at the data in detail. The most one can say is that: 1) if a country has more secessionist movements, then any given ethnic group or region in that same country is more likely to become secessionist; 2) if an ethnic kin group in a neighboring country is secessionist, then an ethnic group is more likely to become secessionist (e.g., Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, & Syria); and 3) governments may worry somewhat about the precedents they establish when recognizing successful secessions (see Coggins (2011) – one example is Spain’s refusal to recognize Kosovo).

  2. Myth: Secession is an exercise of the right to self-determination enshrined in international law. Would-be secessionists sometimes point to the UN Charter’s statements on self-determination to argue that their central governments are legally bound to recognize their claims.

    Fact: The right of self-determination was never meant to apply to secessionists in the classic sense. The UN Charter did not originally affirm a right to self-determination as against existing states. Only in 1960 did the UN General Assembly pass a resolution authorizing independence for colonial peoples. Since that date, the UN has maintained a list of “non-self-governing territories” with a right to self-determination, that is, a right to determine their own status by plebiscite, whether independence or autonomy. Some of these, like Puerto Rico, have opted for autonomy. Still, the right to self-determination in the UN Charter and in international law was meant only to apply to cases of decolonization, and to cases of secession in which the right to colonial self-determination had not been recognized (as in East Timor, which Indonesia had conquered after its withdrawal from the Portuguese Empire). What counts as a colony? The “salt water test” applies: a territory is a colony/non-self-governing territory only if it is separated from its metropole by sea. According to UN Resolution 1541, a colony is “a territory which is geographically separate and is distinct ethnically and/or culturally from the country administering it.” This may be an arbitrary criterion from many perspectives, but it is the standard in international law.

  3. Myth: A distinct ethnic or cultural identity is what determines whether a region will host a secessionist movement. I cannot count the number of times I have seen Internet commenters casually assert that because Crimea is majority ethnic Russian, it must have a majority in support of joining Russia. The notion that a separate ethnic identity in a region causes secessionism there is widespread among laypersons.

    Fact: Although a separate ethnic identity is close to a necessary condition, the economic and political benefits of independence are what determine whether a region will host a secessionist movement. Plenty of ethnically distinctive regions do not host secessionist movements. In Belgium, Dutch-speaking Flanders is fairly secessionist, but hardly anyone in French-speaking Wallonia wants to secede. Flanders would benefit economically from independence; Wallonia would not. In India, hardly anyone in the Dravidian states of the south wants to secede, even though they are different linguistically, phenotypically (“racially”), and even religiously from the Hindi-speaking Hindus of the north who constitute the “ethnic core” of the Indian state. In the former Soviet Union, ethnocultural distance from the Russian majority was inversely related to strength of secessionism, with secessionism weakest in the majority-Muslim central Asian republics and strongest in the Baltics, Armenia, and Georgia. Not coincidentally, the central Asian republics were heavily dependent on Soviet subsidies.

  4. Myth: If every ethnic group had a right to secede, we would very quickly end up in a world with 10,000 independent microstates. This misconception is even common among academics.

    Fact: The vast majority of ethnic minorities around the world have no interest in seceding from their existing governments. This one is a myth for the same reasons that #3 is a myth. Even when we look solely at populous ethnocultural minority groups regionally concentrated in a historic homeland, of which the Minorities at Risk dataset counts 283 in the world, only about 38% of them have a secessionist movement of any kind, and most of those are small. Very few ethnonational minorities would vote for independence even if they were allowed to do so. In India, secessionists call for boycotts of federal elections. Yet in only one state with a secessionist movement, Jammu and Kashmir, do a majority of eligible voters actually fail to vote — and even in that state, my own research suggests a ceiling on secessionist support of about 20% of the population.

  5. Myth: Federalism is a good alternative to secession. Scholars and politicians in Western democracies often propose federalism or decentralization as a solution to secessionist pressures or conflicts. And indeed, a secessionist rebel group is unlikely to lay down arms without some kind of compromise on regional autonomy. But does federalism actually work well to prevent growth in secessionism?

    Fact: There is no solid evidence that decentralization reduces secessionism or the future risk of conflict, and federalism in the developing world is often very poorly designed. Will Kymlicka’s piece, “Is Federalism a Viable Alternative to Secession?,” is a useful starting point on this question. Even though Kymlicka is not an empirical political scientist, his comparative reflections on Canada and the U.S. get him a long way. The quantitative literature does not support any general relationship between federalism and ethnic conflict or secessionism, even though one can find individual pieces on one side or the other of this issue. The basic problem is that both secessionists and central governments face incentives to undermine federalism, and as a result, neither side will trust the other. Federalism is a particularly beside-the-point proposal in situations in which an ethnic minority faces off against a highly nationalistic and chauvinist ethnic majority, as in Sri Lanka, or in dictatorships in which constitutional bonds are particularly flimsy, as in Serbia under Milosevic or China today. Federal institutions will be unstable, and the ethnic minority will not trust them. Independence may be the only solution for preventing future conflict in such cases.

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Gazeta.pl reports that the majority of the Crimean parliament did not vote in favor of a referendum on independence, but that armed men prevented a quorum from attending, allowing a pro-Russian rump to pass the measure. (For my translation, I am relying on Jacek Rostowski on Twitter.) In eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian crowds face determined Ukrainian nationalist, pro-Maidan forces.

Russia’s military occupation of Crimea should not be taken as evidence of autochthonous secessionism. Instead, Russia seems to be using a minority of secessionist diehards to serve as an excuse for, possibly, annexing Crimea de facto to Russia, in more or less the same way as it did with Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the Russian-Georgian war of 2008. The main differences between that episode and this one are that Abkhazia and South Ossetia had already established de facto independence, and Georgia initiated the conflict with Russia. Thus, Russia’s intervention in Crimea is a riskier gamble. It may indicate, however, just how threatened Russia feels by a future in which Ukraine joins the EU and perhaps even NATO.

Update: TAC’s Dan McCarthy plausibly argues that Russia would prefer to use its military control over Crimea as a bargaining chip to ensure a subservient Ukraine.

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That’s the title of a very good article by Princeton political scientist Carles Boix and J.C. Major. The article provides background to the Catalan self-determination movement but also discusses recent developments and the reasons for them. One takeaway is the enormous role that the Spanish government’s response to the last Catalan autonomy statute, essentially gutting it, played in provoking the growth of the independence movement. As I noted in a piece in Electoral Studies 10 years ago, when the central government spikes decentralization, secessionists strengthen, but when a referendum on independence or autonomy fails (the failure being internal rather than external in origin), secessionists weaken. The article also contains important information on what the Catalan government plans to do if the central government forbids it to hold a referendum, as seems likely. I won’t spoil it; just read the article.

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In the third and final part of my series summarizing my working paper, “Designing a Constitutional Right of Secession” (here are parts one and two), I examine the legitimate objections we can raise to a right to secede. Some of these other scholars have previously mooted, while others are apparently original. Regardless, I will argue that all of these arguments merely establish reasons to qualify the right to secede, rather than to abolish it altogether.

Strategic Demarcation of Territory

When secessionists can determine the territory subject to a referendum, they can include as much territory as they feel confident getting away with, while still winning a referendum. They may include territory dominated by opponents of secession, so long as the rest of the people living in the seceding unit can outvote them.

One way of dealing with this problem is to allow recursive secession: territories that oppose secession can themselves secede from the seceding state. Indeed, that may be a good idea, although it poses some risks: the central government could use recursive secession as an excuse to attack a secessionist state, and there will always be controversies about where boundaries should lie. What if secessionists don’t permit recursive secession? Simply banning secession altogether wouldn’t make sense as a response, since that would violate the rights of the many to safeguard the rights of the few.

A better solution is to limit the right of secession to top-tier geographical subunits of the state. Now, there are some problems with this solution as well. First, administrative boundaries may be morally arbitrary, just like
interstate boundaries. Second, relying on administrative boundaries to set the limits of regions that enjoy the right to secede gives central governments an incentive to manipulate administrative boundaries to dilute potential secessionist challenges. Third, allowing regions to secede along existing administrative boundaries may trap significant minorities within the new state. These are all very real problems, as Yugoslavia’s attempted recursive secessions demonstrate. The secession of Croatia trapped Serbs, and the secession of Bosnia trapped both Croats and Serbs. The Badinter Commission denied these groups a recursive right of secession, and therefore they saw their only option as war combined with ethnic cleansing to alter ethnic balances.

So the administrative-boundaries solution works best if there’s a good procedure for letting people decide to which region they will belong. There should be an easy way for people to secede by referendum and set up new administrative regions. It should also be easy to hold referendums in small areas on moving from one region to another. Had Yugoslavia followed these principles, Serb-majority areas of Croatia and Bosnia would not have been part of Croatia and Bosnia, respectively, at all, and there would have been no reason for war.

Even when there are no good procedures for making sure administrative boundaries line up with what people on the ground want, it is better to make existing regions the subjects of a legal right to secede than to allow secessionists or the central government to redefine the scope of the territory subject to secession without the agreement of the other side.

Irredentism

Irredentism refers to movements seeking to take territory from one state and give it to another. Irredentism needs to be regarded more skeptically than secessionism, because irredentism has often been a cause of war among states, including both world wars. Regional irredentists often instigate violence to try to draw in their “parent” state.

Legalizing irredentism by plebiscite would encourage states to meddle in each other’s domestic politics in hopes of boundary revisions. Instead, irredentism can usually be alleviated with generous autonomy, as has occurred in Aaland and South Tyrol. Where irredentism cannot be satis ed with autonomy, such as where the irredentist group is a minority in the disputed region (e.g., Northern Ireland), then a solution will be more difficult, and the states involved may not wish to rule out completely a future transfer of sovereignty. In most cases where a secessionist movement has irredentist potential (e.g., Nagorno-Karabakh), it is reasonable to impose a conditions on a right to independence that the new state will never be allowed to join its ethnic-kin state, that the new state will be demilitarized, and so forth.

Vague Referendum Questions

(more…)

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