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Tyler Cowen thinks Scotland should stay in the UK, and so do I. But this bit of his blog post I can’t quite agree with:

If a significant segment of the British partnership wishes to leave, and for no really good practical reason, it is a sign that something is deeply wrong with contemporary politics and with our standards for loyalties.

I find this entire prospect depressing, and although it is starting to pick up more coverage in the United States and globally, still it is an under-covered story relative to its importance.

This is a referendum on the modern nation-state, an institution that has done very well since the late 1940s but which is indeed often ethnically heterogeneous at its core. While I expect Scottish independence to be voted down, if it passes I will feel the world’s risk premium has gone up, even if the Scots manage to make independence work. (emphasis original)

The main reason why some Scots want to leave the UK is ideological. Scotland consistently votes 15-20 points to the left of the rest of the UK, and with a current center-right government and a constantly improving prospect of a Conservative victory at the next election, many left-wing Scots fear the policies they’ll face in a united Britain. If you follow the Twitter feed of Yes Scotland, you’ll see a stream of claims about new social programs an independent Scotland could implement, and explicit fears about future Tory rule.

Furthermore, Scots are discontented with devolution, wanting something more, but many of them do not trust that David Cameron will follow through on promises to enact more generous autonomy for Scotland (his party is, after all, still the Conservative and Unionist Party).

Growing state intervention in people’s lives has made ordinary ideological disagreements more salient and fundamental. As a result, ideologically polarized people in advanced democracies often wonder whether they can live in peace with “the other side.” Is this depressing or just inevitable? Anyway, I’m not sure Scottish secession would raise the world risk premium any more than Norwegian or Icelandic secession did, or than Faroese independence would. It would at least be peaceful and negotiated. Still, I reiterate that it is probably a bad idea for Scots, and unlikely to happen according to the polls.

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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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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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In my last post on this topic, I argued for a right of unilateral secession on the grounds that: 1) legalizing secession would reduce the risk of violence on net, and 2) codifying a plebiscitary, unilateral right to secede would reduce uncertainty without any compensating disadvantages. In this post, I consider some common objections in the literature to a liberal right to secede and show why they do not overturn the case for a legal right of unilateral secession to be accomplished through democratic plebiscite.

1. Rights-Violating Secessionists

Counting heads is probably not the best way to determine the relative legitimacies of governments. If a region gets 51% of the voters to approve secession, but then the 51% decide to persecute the 49% minority, then secession would cause a net loss in freedom or human rights. Under these conditions, secession should be restricted.

In the abstract, the case for restraining rights-violating secessions is plausible, but it is unworkable institutionally. A legal provision allowing the central government to veto secession if the secessionists are likely to violate rights would suffer from the “biased referee” problem. Central governments will be tempted to use the provision as an excuse to ban all secessions. Similarly, secessionists will always claim to be liberal if they are required to do so, but that does not mean practices will not change once they achieve independence.

Some scholars have argued that the potential for rights violations by secessionists justifies a higher threshold in the referendum on independence (say, 55% rather than 50%+1). There are two problems with this argument: 1) the correlation between secessionists’ likelihood of violating rights and ability to get widespread support in a referendum is probably weak, and 2) this suggestion assumes that secessionists are more likely to violate rights than governments. If governments are more likely to violate rights, then a higher threshold will tend to prevent more morally desirable secessions than the morally objectionable ones it prevents.

In cases such as the U.S. Civil War, in which the central government is sincerely persuaded that a particular secession would be morally disastrous despite, let’s assume, a constitutional provision permitting it, then the government may be morally justified in acting extraconstitutionally to prevent the secession.

2. Nationalist Objections

Nationalists (more…)

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In this three-part series of posts, I will be blogging my new SSRN working paper, “Designing a Constitutional Right of Secession: Applying Normative Principles and Empirical Findings.” The paper defends a right of unilateral secession for any country in which the possibility of secessionist violence is non-negligible, or where central governments are already unwilling to suppress secession militarily.

In this post, I will explain the basic argument in favor of a right of unilateral secession, that is, a justiciable right of a region to secede by plebiscite without a right of veto for other parts of the country or for the central government. I argue for a moral duty on a government to implement a constitutional or legal right to secede, not for a fundamental, abstract, moral right to secede. The difference is important because real-world politics often makes it impossible to satisfy everyone’s moral rights. The case presented in the paper is for legally recognizing a right to secede even when secession would violate some individuals’ rights. Moreover, the argument is about domestic legal guarantees for secession, not international institutions. It may be desirable for a government to recognize a unilateral right of secession even when it is undesirable for international institutions to intervene to enforce such a right.

In the next post, I will address arguments against a legal right of unilateral secession that fail. In the final post, I will explain how a right of unilateral secession should be qualified and structured in a country’s constitution.

To make the argument, I start with a set of normative assumptions and a set of empirical findings. The normative assumptions are intended to be general enough that they can be widely endorsed by people of widely differing moral and political perspectives, who nevertheless share some basic commitments. I then consider how different “secession regimes” — that is, legal approaches regulating secession — can satisfy these principles, bearing empirical findings in mind.

Here are the normative assumptions, ordered lexically so that higher principles take precedence over lower ones:

  1. Maximize physical integrity rights for all. The range of potentially permissible secession regimes is limited to those that can plausibly satisfy this principle. Physical integrity rights include individual rights against extrajudicial killing and physical assault, torture, and illegal detention.
  2. Maximize other basic liberties for all. Among those regimes that can satisfy the first principle, only those that also satisfy the second principle are potentially permissible. Political philosophers disagree on what counts as “basic liberties” that any minimally just regime must satisfy. At the very least, these liberties include wide guarantees for freedom of speech, thought, conscience, association, and equality before the law. John Rawls (1999, pp. 197-9) argues that the “fair value of equal political liberty,” a right to security of personal property, and the right to free choice of an occupation or profession count as fundamental liberties. “Free-market fairness” advocate John Tomasi (2012) also includes the right to security of productive property and the right to own a business. And so on. To the extent that there is disagreement about what counts as a basic liberty, there may be disagreement about the range of potentially permissible secession regimes.
  3. Follow the principle of Pareto optimality. For any two regimes A and B and any two sets of citizens X and Y, if the consequences of the two regimes are such that X prefer one regime to the other, while Y are at least indifferent between the two regimes, then select the regime that X prefer. This principle rules out secession regimes that make some people worse off without making anyone better off, relative to some alternative regime.
  4. Satisfy all other moral principles. Differing moral foundations yield different moral principles. I avoid making claims about moral foundations, but these foundational views may yield further principles limiting the range of permissible secession regimes. Differing views on the nature and importance of distributive justice and economic growth can justify marginally different views on the appropriate secession regime.

I consider the principle of “no forced association” under this last heading. Libertarians, for example, often claim that governments may rule only with the literal consent of each individual under their rule. (Nozick famously disagrees.) Real-world politics always requires some individuals to be coerced. Prohibiting secession coerces some people into supporting a government to which they do not consent. But allowing secession also allows secessionists to coerce the anti-secessionists in their midst. It may be ideal for governments to rule only on the basis of unanimous consent — a question outside the scope of this paper — but in practice, they do coerce nonconsenters. So we have to figure out legal rules for secession in the world as it exists. I argue that the consent principle yields only a weak presumption in favor of allowing secession whenever a majority in the seceding region votes for it. Presumably allowing secession under such conditions will reduce the number of nonconsenters. But it won’t necessarily minimize the number of non-consenters or the number and severity of rights violations, as we shall see.

The generalizable empirical findings about secessionism are as follows: (more…)

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1) Polls continue to point to a significant “yes” victory in a future referendum on independence in Catalonia.

2) If the Catalan government backs down from a referendum, even if the Constitutional Court declares it illegal, as it certainly will, it will pay a heavy price at the polls. Therefore, it is locked into holding a referendum, unless it can negotiate a sufficiently advantageous fiscal settlement with the Spanish state. A negotiated settlement averting a referendum remains the most likely outcome, although p<0.5.

3) Some Catalans think the Socialist Party of Catalonia, which is linked with the main Spanish opposition party (PSOE) and has been trying to straddle the self-determination issue, will implode soon over the issue.

4) Catalonia and Spain may both be more viable as separate states than together. Spain's political economy is dysfunctional. Catalonia’s would not be (the largest Catalan party is centrist with some classical liberal elements). A functional state can carry a larger debt burden than a dysfunctional one. Therefore, the European Union might pressure Spain to accept a post-referendum settlement by which Catalonia is allowed to go free while taking on a disproportionate share of Spain’s debt. (On this point I am indebted to Jaume Lopez Hernandez of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra.) This is the second most likely outcome.

5) Spain’s threat to arrest Catalan leaders and prevent secession by force is not credible. (Although some autonomists and secessionists in Spain insist that the central government would indeed send in the tanks.) Therefore, it is unlikely that the Catalan government will be deterred. A “yes” vote followed by suppression is the least likely outcome, even less likely than a “no” vote.

6) If the Catalan referendum is held, regardless of the result, it would set a powerful precedent for Basque nationalists. The precedent is not that secession is easy or desirable, but that the possible legal framework will be recognized. The Basque Premier backed down from holding a referendum on his “Ibarretxe Plan” for free association after threats of arrest and a negative vote in the Spanish Cortes. The reason why I argued, in this interview, that Ibarretxe should have gone ahead with the referendum is not so much that I endorsed the Plan itself (on which I am agnostic), but that I fear his backing down set an unfavorable precedent for the “right to decide,” which I do favor.

7) Nevertheless, even if Catalonia secedes, the Basque Country Autonomous Community is unlikely to follow, at least right away. Pan-Basque independentists are a powerful force and would insist on bringing along Navarre (and later the French Basque provinces). But Navarre would vote “no” in a referendum held today or at any time in the near future. No other region of Spain is likely to hold a referendum either, and thus there is likely to be no “harmful precedent” for secession or “contagion” from Catalan secession.

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The Center for European Studies at the University of Texas, Austin is hosting a symposium entitled, “Secession Redux: Lessons for the EU” tomorrow (Friday). It will be held all day at the LBJ School, Sid Richardson Hall, Room 3.122. It is open to the public. The schedule is here. I will be speaking on “Secessionism in the New Europe” on a panel dedicated to “Current European Challenges.”

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