On sovereignty, nationalism, secessionism

About the criteria for national indivisibility and the normative grounds for secession

Advanced issues of political organisation (POL411)

Hello, my name is Protesilaos Stavrou. In this seminar I will talk about the parameters of a uniform polity; the normative criteria for maintaining a national compact and the conditions that may justify unilateral secession from a state. To proceed, I shall first describe the desired modality of sovereignty within a political whole: in other words, what exactly provides a moral basis for the exercise of supreme political authority.

The nation state is the unit of sovereignty in global politics. Indeed we refer to politics on that scale as “international”, as being between nations: a reference to the centrality of the nation qua nation state. Consequently, sovereignty is expressed as national sovereignty. Nations appear to be unified wholes. They have a single diplomatic personality.

As explained at greater detail in the previous seminar about How to evaluate international relations one of the main principles of sovereignty is territoriality. It concerns the physical confines within which the state may rightfully exercise control. Territoriality in conjunction with the outward uniformity of nations, gives credence to the concept of the indivisibility of the nation state. It cannot be partitioned or otherwise broken up.

Yet at first sight this notion seems to directly contradict the principle of the self-determination of peoples. One may wonder how come there are all these states if secession is illegal? How is it that new states emerged out of older ones? The answer to such questions is two-fold, a normative and a technical.

For the normative issues, we must consider the very ideology of the nation state. This political construct rests on the tenet of identifying a culturally-defined people with a state within a territory they may historically claim as their own. Nations are largely homogeneous. They strive to engender a sense of togetherness and belonging among all their members. The belief is that the borders of the state eventually encompass all members of this community. If so, the nation state stands as an organic entity; “organic” in the sense that it comes from the evolution of history. It emerges from the shared experiences and cultural-historical path dependencies of that people. At scale, this thinking results in a worldview where every nation ought to have its own state. Perhaps counter-intuitively, that would mean that once realised, there would indeed be no legitimate grounds for violating the indivisibility of states since they already occupy their natural space. Nationalism, in the sense here described as a generic commitment to the nation state, is the default belief in world affairs. The only way a secessionist movement could gain support is if it would decisively prove that it represents a nation in its own right. As such, territoriality and the resulting indivisibility of the nation state would, by default, take precedence over the principle of self-determination. It would take precedence until proven otherwise.

As for the legal/technical side of the matter, the only way for the principle of self-determination to take precedence over that of territoriality, is if a set of criteria are satisfied. These clearly confirm the need for the people concerned to exercise self-determination, break free from their current state and set up their own national construct. The criteria are as follows:

  1. At first, the secessionist group has to make a strong case for being recognised as a culturally distinct entity. A people with a history, traditions of its own, and a language or, more generally, a common basis for enabling inter-personal relations and peaceful coexistence.
  2. Secondly, this people must reside within a clearly delineated territory so as to render concrete the claims on its history as a group, as well as to provide a viable foundation for establishing a constitutional order. A state without a contiguous territory is virtually unsustainable.
  3. Thirdly, the secessionist group must demonstrate that the current legal-political order in which it lives is actively treating it unfairly. The people would have to be discriminated against and be treated as second-class citizens by virtue of being who they are.
  4. Fourthly, any unfair treatment would have to be systemic in nature. That is to say that the injustice could not be rectified by means of a simple law or a change in the faces that make up the government. The problem would have to be pervasive, persistent, and, in a sense, structural.
  5. And finally, the people calling for self-determination and effectively their secession from their current state, would have to prove that they have honestly tried—and eventually—exhausted all legal means for satisfying their demands. The secessionists would have to prove that break up is the only available course of action after everything else has been tested and failed.

This list is non-exhaustive, comprehensive and demanding though it may be. To it we could add some of the more extreme scenarios, such as a real threat of genocide or crimes against humanity. The point, nonetheless, is to render concrete the normative and legal doctrine that territoriality or else the indivisibility of the nation state takes precedence over the self-determination of peoples under normal circumstances.

In practice, the ramifications are far-reaching. Not only the secessionists have the burden of proof, they must also find a favourable climate among the members of the international community. And this complicates things considerably. The case is no longer a matter of evaluating objective criteria in order to arrive at a certain conclusion. The process is not mechanistic. Instead, there is an element of relativity involved. The context matters greatly. A given balance of powers may prove critical in determining the end result.

However, and even if we were to assume that power politics at the global level are favourable, there still is another normative issue that needs to be accounted for. And this relates to the mutuality of self-determination. It is not only the secessionist group that enjoys a right to decide for its future, given the appropriate circumstances. The people that encompasses the secessionist group also enjoys the same freedom. And that is why unilateral secession cannot be considered acceptable as a starting point. For it creates an asymmetry, a double standard. And that is why the aforementioned fifth criterion is in place, namely, that all legal means for a settlement have been thoroughly explored, exhausted, and proven unsuccessful in the spirit of good faith.

Against this backdrop, a certain problématique arises as to what stance should the international community take. The right answer will always be largely contingent on the specifics of the case. Still, there are some general principles or guidelines as to what is the correct course of action.

At first, other nation states must respect the core tenets of nationalism, in the sense here considered. More specifically, they must abide by the connatural principles of independence, equality, and territoriality. Which practically means that they must refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of the state. Interference amounts to a violation of all three principles: it annuls independence, it establishes a de facto hierarchy thus suspending equality, and it threatens to redefine the territory of the nation state. The reason why these principles are the cornerstone of the world order is very much historical. In their absence, there is virtually no constraint to unbridled hegemonism, to a politics of fission, constant strife and controversy, as was the case, for instance, in Medieval Europe. On a side note, these principles are known as “Westphalian”, as they trace their origin to the Peace Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 which ended the thirty years war.

Secondly, the international community has to consider the implications of supporting a secessionist group. More specifically, they need to carefully evaluate the particularities of the case in order to understand what kind of precedent a possible secession would establish. The criteria cannot be relaxed, nor can they be applied arbitrarily. That is a great risk. It could upset the international order, effectively bringing us back to the pre-Westphalian era. In this regard, nationalism in the particular sense here considered, is seen as a force for good. It has the benign effect of keeping disputes at a relative minimum, for each nation state is perceived to have, more or less, reached its natural limits. There are exceptions, of course, as is the case with everything in politics, though still this is the midpoint of global affairs.

And thirdly, the members of the international community must account for geopolitics. Favouring a certain secessionist group can imply that a given coalition of powers may push forward its own agenda at the expense of international norms. This sort of exceptionalism is a double-edged sword. In the short term, it may meet the ends of the coalition of powers. Over the longer term though, it sets a precedent for opportunism and for arbitrarily applying principles on the basis of expedience and in accordance with imperialistic tendencies. Again, this threatens to undermine the international order, which eventually is a zero-sum game that will make everyone worse off.

The gist is that the underlying principles of sovereignty, the overarching commitment to nationalism as a pro-nation-state ideology, the stringent criteria for unilateral secession, and the complexity of international politics, favour peaceful settlement as the default course of action. Direct conflict will not necessarily bring recognition from the international community. The sense of freedom a winning war may bring, will not always correspond to an actual improvement in the prevailing conditions if the other nation states are not supportive of the cause. Therefore, and perhaps ironically, unilateralism may end up increasing the dependency on a foreign power even though the ambition was to achieve independence.

To apply these findings to some real world examples, think about the following questions in relation to the Catalans, the Flemish, the Northern Italians, the Kurds, and so on:

  • Do they clearly constitute a culturally-defined people in their own right? And does that clearly introduce a demarcation line between them and the greater people that encompasses them?
  • Do they occupy a contiguous territory that could provide the basis for a viable constitutional order?
  • Are they actively discriminated against and treated as second class citizens?
  • Is the injustice they suffer systemic in nature? Are the institutions themselves hindering their very ability to remain who they are?
  • Have they exhausted all the legal means at their disposal for reaching a settlement? Have they engaged in good faith in negotiations?

To these we may add some complementary questions:

  • Are their demands for self-determination broad in scope? Do they cover every aspect of public life? Or are they, more or less, limited to certain headline issues, such as not wanting to pay taxes or comply with some similar rules?
  • Have they made their case clear to the international community and have they proven that their demands are just and would not set a dangerous precedent for upsetting the international order?
  • Can their demands be eventually satisfied in a spirit of consensus among the members of the international community, in accordance with objective criteria? Or is their fate a function of opportunistic power politics between a handful of global powers?

One can only contemplate these themes in light of the reasoning developed herein and always in accordance with the specifics of each case. It is safe to suggest that there are no easy answers. Much depends on the evaluation one makes of the various factors involved. The essential point, however, is that it is an outright falsehood to exalt the principle of the self-determination of peoples as an absolute. Self-determination is but one of the many principles that govern international affairs. It exists in relation to other magnitudes of sovereignty and of the parameters that define the nation state. And due to normative, as well as legal/technical reasons, it is antecedent to the territoriality or else indivisibility of the nation state.

Unilateralism can seldom produce the desired results. It is more likely than not to lead to a sub-optimal outcome, one that could, under certain circumstances, be even worse than the prior state of affairs. The international community does not accept arbitrariness, it cannot endure exceptionalist practices over the long term, and it is not favourable to the general sense of acting alone without considering the context. The burden of proof is on the secessionist movements to make a strong case for their demands. And the standard is set very high in an understandable attempt to preserve the normative foundations of global affairs.

Thank you very much for your attention. I hope this seminar gives you food for thought and that it inspires you to see things from a different vantage point.


This seminar was produced using only free and open source software.

  • The audio was captured and edited with Audacity.
  • The presentation slides were prepared in LibreOffice and converted from a .pdf into .jpg using Imagemagick.
  • The video editing was done with OpenShot.
  • The transcript was written in Vim.
  • All working on a GNU/Linux machine, specifically Arch.
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Protesilaos Stavrou

EU policy analyst. Philosopher. Web developer.
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