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On March 15, I had the opportunity to testify at the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats, chaired by California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, on the topic of whether the U.S. government should change its policy toward national self-determination movements. I’m posting here my written testimony (my oral testimony had to be briefer). The conversations with the congressmen were interesting, and I think they revealed something about the foundations of U.S. policy toward such movements. Rep. Weber grilled me a bit about whether countries such as Spain, France, and Italy that prohibit secession in their constitutions should not enforce their constitutions. I responded that these countries should change their constitutions. However, another point I would make now is that the purpose of constitutions is to constrain governments, not citizens. Statutes and administrative regulations constrain citizens, but the constitution in turn restricts the ways in which government can create and implement these rules. So a constitutional prohibition against secession could really be enforced only against government agencies, and a government would be well within its legal rights to allow citizens to pursue secession, even in the face of a constitutional prohibition.

Introduction

National self-determination movements seek greater self-government for a national minority, typically including the right to vote on forming a new independent state. Recent examples of successful self-determination movements include South Sudan, Kosovo, Montenegro, and East Timor. Ongoing self-determination claims are found in Scotland, Catalonia, the Faroe Islands, Kashmir, Tamil Eelam, Somaliland, Western Sahara, West Papua, Tibet, Mindanao, and many other places. Like other states, the U.S. government faces decisions about whether to recognize declarations of independence, to enter into diplomatic relations with new states, and to engage in diplomacy with other states about self-determination movements within their borders.

In my testimony, I will first describe the current state of self-determination movements around the world, then summarize what scholars have learned about the relationship between self-determination conflicts and violence. I will conclude by assessing the validity of claims advocating the creation of new states or changes to national borders.

The Current State of Self-Determination Movements

Self-determination movements generally take one of two forms: political parties and armed groups. Currently, secessionist political parties that seek at least a vote on independence are found in Belgium (Flanders), Canada (Quebec), Denmark (Faroe Islands and Greenland), Finland (Åland), France (Brittany and Corsica), Germany (Bavaria), Italy (Veneto and Sardinia), Spain (Catalonia, the Baleares, the Basque Country, Navarre, Canary Islands, and Galicia), the UK (Scotland and Wales), and the United States (Alaska and Puerto Rico). In addition, irredentist parties, which seek to move territory from one country to another, are present in the UK (Northern Ireland) and Italy (South Tyrol).

Armed self-determination movements are typically found in the developing world. Figure 1 shows where intrastate armed conflicts on territorial issues (generally, self-determination) occurred during the 2011-2014 period. These conflicts require at least 25 battle deaths in a single year to be counted.

territorial conflicts map

Developing countries usually forbid self-determination movements from organizing as political parties. For instance, Turkey, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Russia make advocacy for the self-determination of a particular region a criminal offense — an act that would be protected by the First Amendment in the United States.

Western, liberal democracies typically allow secessionist parties to organize and contest elections, but they do not all allow for secession. The Canadian Supreme Court has ruled that Quebec secession is negotiable if the province votes by “a clear majority on a clear question” for independence. The United Kingdom negotiated the terms of an independence referendum for Scotland and agreed to be bound by the result. The Danish government concedes a right to independence for Greenland and the Faroe Islands, and breakup is routinely discussed as a legal option for Belgium. St. Kitts and Nevis and Liechtenstein have constitutional clauses protecting the right of secession. On the other hand, France, Spain, and Italy all have constitutions explicitly defining their countries as indivisible, thus proscribing secession.

Majority support for independence in a population is rare. As of this writing, in all the high-income democracies of Europe, North America, and the Pacific Rim, there is only one region in which parties clearly favoring short-run independence have won an absolute majority of votes in any recent election: Scotland. Furthermore, in Scotland, many voters voted for the Scottish National Party (SNP) without favoring independence, and support for independence has been below 50 percent in polls since that election, including
the September 18, 2014 referendum itself. Using data from the Minorities at Risk project, I found that as of 2003, 107 ethnonational minorities, 38 percent of the total number in the data set, had a secessionist organization of any size (Sorens 2012, 56). In a recent article, I estimated the percentage of the population supporting independence in every state of India, finding figures no higher than 20 percent anywhere (Sorens 2014, 264).

The Causes of Self-Determination Conflicts

Popular demand for independence comes from a combination of a distinctive cultural identity, territorial coherence, and either political or economic benefits of independence (Sorens 2005; Hale 2008; Sorens 2012). Having just one of these elements is not enough, which is why the vast majority of minority nations around the world do not have any secessionist movement at all.

One worry about allowing secessionist movements is so-called “contagion” across regions or countries, but secessionism does not in fact seem to be contagious across countries, although it does have a tendency to spread within a country (Ayres and Saideman 2000; Sorens 2012), which is why governments often crack down on them (Walter 2006).

At the individual level, there is some evidence that voter support for independence is rational, that is, related in the expected way to the expected benefits of independence (Howe 1998). However, there is a difficult-to-resolve debate about the extent to which independence support is caused by voters’ assessments of the benefits of independence, or if instead independence support causes those estimates of benefits through a process of rationalization (Mendelsohn 2003).

Secessionism is strongly associated with violent conflict (Toft 2003). In general, separatist civil wars last longer than other kinds of wars, implying that the warring parties cannot find negotiated settlements even when the conflicts are stalemated (Fearon 2004; Sorens 2012).

I find that providing a legal path to independence is associated with less ethnonationalist rebellion (Sorens 2012). The United Kingdom, Canada, Denmark, and Belgium have had much less secessionist violence than France, Spain, and Italy — and secessionist violence has gone away in Puerto Rico since the U.S. government informally recognized their right to independence. Clauses permitting secession were also crucial to peace agreements ending the conflicts in Northern Ireland, South Sudan, and Bougainville (part of Papua New Guinea). The European Union’s Treaty of Lisbon explicitly recognizes member states’ right to secede from the Union, because no country would want to join a union they could never leave.

Implications for U.S. Policy

A legal path to independence can promote peace by constraining secessionists and central governments to pursue their aims through electoral and legislative means. On the one hand, secessionists have no excuse for resorting to violent tactics; to do so would be to admit failure to persuade a majority of the people they claim to represent, while imposing costs of violence on the very people they purport to represent and from whom they would have to recruit. On the other hand, central governments often cannot commit to respecting
a negotiated regional autonomy compromise without also conceding a right to secede. The South Sudanese and Bougainvillean secessionists would probably not have agreed to a peace deal without a referendum guarantee. These conflicts lasted 22 and nine years, respectively. Authoritarian and especially nationalistic central governments will face both desire and opportunity to renege
on previously negotiated autonomy arrangements; only a right to secede may be sufficient to deter them and thereby induce secessionist rebels to lay down arms in the first place. I also find that central governments permitting a legal path to independence are more likely to decentralize to ethnic minority regions and have never recentralized power in the post-World War II era (Sorens 2012).

If every country recognized its minority nations’ right to secede, only a few would apparently exercise such a right. Moreover, the overall level of global violence would likely decline by replacing intrastate conflicts with interstate conflicts. Intrastate conflicts are far more common than interstate conflicts (see Figure 2). Since World War 2, civil conflicts have killed seven times more people than interstate conflicts (Collier and Sambanis 2005; PRIO n.d.). Civil wars last much longer than interstate wars (Fearon 2004). Civil wars are also more likely to happen in more populous countries (Fearon and Laitin 2003). These findings suggest that a global increase in the number of independent states and a decrease in their average size would decrease the total number of conflict deaths.

conflict types

There are good reasons for the U.S. government to avoid assertively internationalizing other countries’ self-determination conflicts, which can look like meddling in other countries’ internal affairs. The U.S. arguably erred in refusing to negotiate a democratically authorized partition of Kosovo; as a result, an independent Kosovo lacks broad recognition from other states and is having trouble entering international institutions. Nevertheless, once a declaration of independence is issued, the U.S. government has no choice but to respond. In such an event, the U.S. government might wish to consider not only the interests of the host state, but also the interests of the seceding state and the effect of secession on regional stability. On average, replacing a state-to-nation relationship with a state-to-state relationship reduces violence.

References

Ayres, R. William & Stephen Saideman. 2000. “Is Separatism as Contagious as the Common Cold or as Cancer? Testing the International and DomesticDeterminants of Secessionism.” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 6(3):92–114.
Collier, Paul & Nicholas Sambanis. 2005. Preface. In Understanding Civil War: Evidence and Analysis: Volume 1 (Africa), ed. Paul Collier & Nicholas Sambanis. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank.
Data on Armed Conflict. 2013. Peace Research Institute of Oslo. http://www.prio.no/Data/Armed-Conflict/, accessed September 20, 2013.
Fearon, James D. 2004. “Why Do Some Civil Wars Last So Much Longer than Others?” Journal of Peace Research 41(3):275–301.
Fearon, James D. & David D. Laitin. 2003. “Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War.” American Political Science Review 97(1):75–90.
Hale, Henry E. 2008. The Foundations of Ethnic Politics: Separatism of States and Nations in Eurasia and the World. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Howe, Paul. 1998. “Rationality and Sovereignty Support in Quebec.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 31(1):31–59.
Mendelsohn, Matthew. 2003. “Rational Choice and Socio-Psychological Explanations for Opinion on Quebec Sovereignty.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 36(3):511–537.
Sorens, Jason. 2005. “The Cross-Sectional Determinants of Secessionism in Advanced Democracies.” Comparative Political Studies 38(3):304–326.
Sorens, Jason. 2012. Secessionism: Identity, Interest, and Strategy. Montreal, Que.: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Sorens, Jason. 2014. “Legal Regimes for Secession: Applying Moral Theory and Empirical Findings.” Public Affairs Quarterly 28(3):259–288.
Toft, Monica Duffy. 2003. The Geography of Ethnic Violence: Identity, Interests, and the Indivisibility of Territory. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Walter, Barbara F. 2006. “Building Reputation: Why Governments Fight Some Separatists but Not Others.” American Journal of Political Science 50(2):313–330.

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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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