6 National self-determination

When is secession justified?

By valuing a group positively and seeking self-determination for it, nationalists often set out to redraw maps, to create new countries or to reinstate old ones. It is rare for this to occur without (often violent) conflict. Can political theorists offer guides to dealing peacefully with such disputes?

One question which political theorists have focused on has been that of secession. Secession as an issue carries with it most of the dilemmas associated with nations and nationalism, and whether theorists can say anything useful in terms of rights and wrongs. In cases of dispute, how might one decide which communities should be self-governing?

Surprisingly few political theorists have paid sustained attention to this problem. One exception has been Frederick Whelan, whose search for a satisfactory guiding principle ended in a pessimism that is evident when he writes that: ‘it appears that our only choices are to abide by the arbitrary verdicts of history or war, or to appeal on an ad hoc basis to other principles, none of which commands general respect’ (Whelan, 1983, p. 16). Nevertheless, vigorous debate continues. Let's map some of the approaches theorists have taken.

Consider a country we can call ‘Y’, which consists of three different groups: the As, the Bs and the Cs. The most numerous group are the As, making up 60 per cent of the population. The Bs make up 30 per cent and the Cs 10 per cent. We could look at country Y and ask: which communities should be self-determining here?

The first response might be that it simply does not matter as long as country Y is democratically governed. Separating out or combining together different cultural communities makes no difference because if the state is democratic everyone has full rights to liberty and basic equalities anyway. This is a provocative view, one that liberals (who see people as essentially the same underneath their outward differences) often find attractive. But the fact is that people do feel identification with others, and often wish to be governed with, and by, particular others, people from ‘their’ group. As we have seen, the recasting of the world political map after the end of the Cold War forced many more theorists to address issues of nationalism and community.

A second response might be to find objective criteria to distinguish one political community from another, and apply them. But we have seen the very real difficulties in trying to construct ‘objective’ indices.

So what other approaches are there if we accept that the issue can't be ignored, and that we need to take a subjective approach to it? A more promising third response among advocates of democracy has been to search for democratic answers to these dilemmas. We could ignore democratic mechanisms and just say ‘leave it up to the people in Y, they'll work it out’. But we would be right to be wary of coercive means (such as ‘ethnic cleansing’) to determine which political communities should be self-governing.

Democracy is often taken to mean ‘majority rule’, or sometimes ‘majority rule, minority rights’. Often, however, writers on the subject have ignored the prior question; ‘majority of which group of people?’ We are caught in a vicious circle, it seems, where the people cannot decide who are ‘the people’ (or who constitutes ‘the nation’) until we know who the people are who can decide!

Some theorists have suggested ways out of this vicious circle. Consider country Y again. If groups A, B and C are all governed within Y as one state, and there is no significant dispute about the legitimacy of Y, then issues do not arise. But what if Bs want to secede and form their own state? What could make their secession legitimate?

The democratic theorist will answer: democratic majorities. So if a majority of people in B vote for an independent state, it should be granted. Democratic theorist Robert A. Dahl emphasises the point that the would-be new state should itself be a democracy, and most would be happy to add that criterion (Dahl, 1989). But again, there are some tough questions that need to be addressed.