The ethics of secession

Is secession wrong, and if not, who may legitimately secede? This is a brief review of the specific ethics of secession, especially in relation to democracy and nationalism.

the paradox of secession

Do you live in a western society, and do you want to be treated as a crank? Then suggest establishing a new state with a new political system. And preferably, suggest it should be on an artificial island, and write the constitution yourself. On the other hand, if you suggest establishing a new nation state, for an existing but oppressed ethnic group, you will not be treated as a crank. You might be called a traitor, or even executed for treason. But if you survive that phase, you might end your life as president of the new state - with airports, streets, and mountains named after you. And they might even let you write the Constitution.

This is the paradox of secession which deserves attention from political theory. Looking at history, national secessionist movements are relatively successful. Numerically, most of them failed - but the ones that succeeded now run most of this planet. Considering the magnitude of their demands, the vehemence of opposition, and the bloodshed they usually engender, they seem a successful type of political movement. Yet in the same historical perspective, non-national (non-ethnic) secessionist movements are a total flop.

Now, if anyone can secede at any time, that means the end of the state, the government, on the usual definitions. And not just of tyrannies and gulags, but also of 'nice' democratic governments. The explanation might be simply the fear of bloodshed and chaos - anarchy in the most negative sense. This does not explain why national secession has been relatively successful: it is possible to take an ethical position that "all secession is wrong", but evidently very few people do. Distinctions are made, and conditions are set, but some secessions are accepted. So the 'ethics of secession' here means both the claims made about secession, and the question of whether these claims are right (or even consistent). Both are relevant for consideration of the ethical issues.

democracy contra secession

Democracy relies on a prohibition of secession. A democratic regime assumes a 'demos' - a unit of political decision-making which is constant between decisions. If every dissident minority secedes after every opposed decision, then there is no democratic regime. (There would be no political regime at all - at least not for standard political theory).

So democrats have concluded, like President Lincoln in the 1860's, that secession must be suppressed. Since modern democracies are nation states, secession is now treated as an issue of national unity, and national identity: Lincoln was one of the last politicians who had to address secession as a classic political issue.

It presents to the whole family of man the question whether a constitutional republic or democracy -- a Government of the people, by the same people -- can or cannot maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes. It presents the question whether discontented individuals, too few in numbers to control administration, according to organic law, in any case, can always, upon the pretenses made in this case, or on any other pretenses, or arbitrarily without any pretense, break up their Government and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth. It forces us to ask: "Is there, in all republics, this inherent and fatal weakness?" "Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?
Abraham Lincoln, Special Session Message, 1861.

So he sent the troops: the speech marked the start of the Civil War. Today Lincoln would avoid political philosophy, and talk about a shared history, identity and culture. He would conclude that there can only be one American sovereign state, because there is one 'American people'. The supporters of democracy no longer need to advocate force - because nationalists do that for them. The nationalists advocate force to preserve the territorial integrity of the nation, which coincidentally is also the demos, the political unit. In this way, the nationalists get the bad publicity, not the democrats. Nevertheless, those who advocate democracy are also logically advocating, that at some point secession be suppressed. And almost inevitably, that implies the use of force - military force. You can not be a democrat unless you are prepared to kill. An entirely pacifist democracy might work for small homogeneous groups, but not for large states with hundreds of millions of inhabitants. A large democratic state, with no armed forces, would be overwhelmed by secession.

One democratic theorist who represents this darker side of democracy is Lea Brilmayer. Her essay on secession and self-determination is a charter for anti-secessionist force (and therefore inevitably for anti-secessionist atrocities).

Despite the rhetoric of liberal democracy, actual consent is not necessary to political legitimacy...Separatists cannot base their arguments on a right to opt out because no such right exists in democratic theory.
Government by the consent of the governed does not necessarily encompass a right to opt out. It only requires that within the existing political unit a right to participate through electoral processes be available. Moreover participatory rights do not entail a right to secede.
Lea Brilmayer (1991) Secession and self-determination: a territorial interpretation. Yale Journal of International Law 16, 177-202, p.184-185.

Her ethic of democracy is clear: "we let you participate in the demos, therefore we are entitled to keep you in it". Democrats claim a general right to reject secession. But it is equally possible to reverse the approach, and ask if any political regime ever has a right to prevent secession. More specifically, if there is a universal right to prevent the formation of a new state (by secession). Political philosophy generally ignores this issue - which can also be formulated as a question about how many states there should be. At present there are 180 to 200 'states', depending on exact definitions. And for liberal-democratic political philosophy, that seems to be enough. Lea Brilmayer puts it like this:

When a group seeks to secede, it is claiming a right to a particular piece of land, and one must necessarily inquire into why it is entitled to that particular piece of land, as opposed to some other piece of land - or no land at all.
Lea Brilmayer (1991) Secession and self-determination: a territorial interpretation. Yale Journal of International Law 16, 177-202, p.201.

This is not an accurate picture of the present geopolitical reality. A non-ethnic secessionist group might not claim any particular piece of land, but just some land, somewhere. However, it will belong to some state: there are no more undiscovered, uninhabited islands, at least not of any habitable size. Since about 1950, all land area is claimed by some nation state, often by several nation states. Artificial islands are disproportionately prominent in neo-secessionist proposals, but no large-scale proposals of this type were ever implemented. Secession is the only real method of new state formation, and a prohibition of secession is equivalent to a veto on new states. There is no moral justification for such a veto. As a general principle every state-forming secession is legitimate, unless there are specific reasons to reject it. These could be ethical objections to the state itself, or to the means of its formation, especially forced population transfers.

libertarian secession proposals

Recent proposals for non-ethnic secession usually come from libertarians. Libertarianism itself is a primarily Anglo-American political ideology: it derives from the English tradition of anti-state 'protective liberalism'. Although the idea seems to be going out of fashion, US libertarians especially have proposed new states on artificial islands. Sometimes they are misleadingly called 'new nations', although no new ethnic or cultural group is intended.

These suggestions should not be confused with projects for new structures in sea, as a form of property development. These projects are essentially a form of land reclamation. In the Netherlands there are plans for new islands and peninsulas off the coast, instead of traditional enclosure dikes. Dubai has the largest existing project of this type. They do not have the intention of creating a new state: they fall under the sovereign territory of an existing state. They may be designed to fall exactly within a particular sovereignty, as in Monaco and Macao. Both semi-sovereign territories have run out of land, for new hotels and casinos: that is the only reason for expensive construction in sea.

These property developments are real construction projects, with real investors, and using available technology. In contrast, the libertarian projects are political proposals. In the case of ocean islands - necessary to evade the 200-mile economic zones of existing states - the construction technology does not exist yet. Although the projects are justified with general libertarian arguments of individual sovereignty and limited government, one factor stands out. Libertarian 'new state' proposals are primarily intended for tax avoidance.

There is a thin line between tax avoidance and tax evasion: the proposals evoke the semi-criminal image of existing tax havens. Some are no more than investor scams: the financial logic is absent. Why build a floating Liechtenstein, when there is a non-floating version available already? And if international fiscal pressure is eroding the traditional sovereign tax havens, why would it stop at an artificial island?

The libertarian proposals have been unable to present any other economic logic, for new island states. For most industrial or service activities, they would far more expensive than a land location. Leaving aside the tax-avoidance aspect, the free market will not lead to the construction of such projects. (And of course libertarians would be horrified by the suggestion, that the government should raise extra taxes to pay for their construction). So although some legal issues concerning sovereignty of new island states have been discussed, they will not be tested.

In terms of self determination and state formation, results can be drawn from two general lines of thought. First of all, in extent to general rights and principles, especially expressed in U.N. Resolution 1514, Paragraph 2 and Resolution 2625, the rights of communities of people to self determination are quite clear, and as such the formation of a self governing colony of 'peoples' would be quite legal....Conversely, one could argue that there are no objective qualifications of the group of colonists. There would be no shared history, traditions, religions, ethnicities, or cultures on which to base this new 'nation'....
The second line of reason, follows from the Montevideo qualifications, objective but yet abstract general principles of state formation. As argued the proposed model would theoretically fulfil of these conditions; territory, population and sovereign control. Yet, arguably the most contentious condition, recognition by other states, is difficult to predict and would be subject to various political manoeuvring of other states.
Rene Kardol (1999) Proposed Inhabited Artificial Islands in International Waters: International Law Analysis in Regards to Resource Use, Law of the Sea and Norms of Self-Determination and State Recognition (MA Thesis, Universiteit van Amsterdam).

The proposal in this case is fictitious - an artificial island of 100 000 inhabitants. No real project of this magnitude will be built in the near future. The standard method of new state formation will continue to be the secession of existing territory.


When secession is considered by political philosophers - and that is not very often - they usually say that no secession is legitimate, except in response to oppression or injustice. The underlying logic is that new states are somehow a bad thing - something which can only be justified to avoid another great evil. Most liberal-democratic theorists require an explicit policy of oppression by the majority community, as grounds for secession. They give the impression that you are only justified in thinking about it, when the secret police is already knocking at the door. If only impending atrocities could justify secession, then secession would indeed be something horrifying. But what exactly is so horrifying about it?

The dominant anti-secessionism is reflected in geopolitics: the underlying pattern is of anti-secessionist co-operation between states, and some anti-secessionist interventionism. Here too, nationalism is a parallel explanation for this pattern. Historically, nation states act together with other nation states, to promote the nation state as form of state. The United Nations, as the name implies, is a reasonably successful product of this co-operation: there is no United Empires or United Tribes.

It is true that nation states sometimes support secessionist movements in other states. That attracts all the attention, but the reality is that new state formation is rare. The net long-term average, since the European nationalist uprisings of 1848, is about one new nation state per year - it could have been far more. It also seems, at first sight, that anti-secession interventions are rare - for example the UN attempt to preserve a unitary Somali state. But Africa is the wrong place to look for the examples.

A better example is the NATO, which has an implicit function as a de facto anti-secession league. That may seem a strange interpretation, after the western role in the break-up of Yugoslavia. It is true that the NATO in Kosovo 'captured the territory' from Serbia, and created a protectorate. But the point is, that the NATO does not treat its own members like that. The structure of the NATO assumes the permanent existence and permanent legitimacy of its member states, and it has the treaty authorisation to preserve them. Attempted non-ethnic secession from a NATO member state would qualify as 'aggression' under the North Atlantic Treaty, and lead to an intervention by other members, to preserve the status quo.

The European Union also has a stabilising role on the system of states in Europe. It does not have a specific secession prohibition, but the geopolitical reality is that the EU has 'frozen' the number of nation states in western Europe (and now eastern Europe). Any new non-ethnic state in Europe is out of the question, in this geopolitical order. Other macro-regional organisations of states, such as the OAU (Africa) or ASEAN (South-East Asia) can not match the success of the EU in this respect. However none of them accept non-ethnic secession.

'incession', the opposite of secession

Democracy also relies on a prohibition of what could be called 'incession' - the forced inclusion in the demos of a previously external population. The word 'accession' is generally used when the transfer is agreed by both sides, as in the accession of the western states to the United States of America. Until about 30 years ago, potential 'incession' was not important in western political theory. The last unwanted mass migration in western Europe was the Viking raids. In the older standard view, repressive regimes had walls to keep their citizens in, and democracies had open borders. Now however, it is the democracies which have walls, to keep new citizens out.

Modern democratic theory was formulated in the 18th and 19th century. It was not then a serious proposition that millions of people from Africa and Asia could emigrate to Europe, against the opposition of European governments. Despite the experience in the United States, democratic theory in general assumed low immigration rates, and a culturally stable 'demos'. In Europe, the scale of post-war immigration gradually became clear. Potentially, the new population could politically dominate the old, simply by force of numbers. The fear of being "swamped" (as Margaret Thatcher called it) facilitated the growth of anti-immigration parties in the last decades - and 'defence of democracy' is one argument they have deployed.

Democratic theorists don't like to be associated with people like Jean-Marie Le Pen or Jörg Haider, but they are generally hostile to 'incession'. Democratic theory seems to treat it as a general principle, that the 'demos' should be maintained in its present form. If necessary by force, and that includes immigration controls. In the light of estimates that Europe will need hundreds of millions of immigrants to maintain its population, the tone is getting harsher. In the future, anti-incession arguments will probably be more prominent in democratic theory.

nationalism contra secession, usually

Although secessionist groups are often nationalist, the ideology of nationalism is generally hostile to secession. It is a mistake to equate 'nationalist' with 'secessionist'. Emphasis on national unity and the indivisibility of the nation is central to nationalist ideology and rhetoric. (Nationalist anti-immigration propaganda is also directed primarily at the 'non-belonging' of the immigrant, at the cultural differences).

Democracy theory and nationalist ideology concede a right to secession in a limited number of cases, for a specific recognised unit. Democrats call that unit a 'demos', nationalists speak of a 'people' or 'nation'. Both ideologies are related, and are borrowing from each other - although democrats may not want to admit that. Democrats speak of a 'legitimate demos' - entitled to secede, even from a democracy. But when they try to define it, it sounds exactly like a nation - with unity of culture, language and descent, and historical links to a particular territory. In practice, overseas colonies of imperial powers stood the best chance of independence. In every case, the ex-colonies proclaimed themselves to be the national homeland of a specific people, entirely in accordance with nationalist ideology.

It is easy to understand why nationalists give nations priority in state formation. However, there is no reason why only these units can form the demos of any new democracy. Democratic theory can not ethically justify its alliance with nationalism on this issue. Avishai Margalit and Joseph Raz did attempt a justification, listing six characteristics of groups which made them candidates for self-determination (or not). However, all they did was to restate well-known characteristics of nations, without explaining exactly why these characteristics justify special privilege, in state formation.

What is it that makes peoples particularly suited to self-determination?....we may gain insight by comparing them with groups, e.g. the fiction-reading public or Tottenham Football Club supporters, which obviously do not enjoy such a right. Reflection on such examples suggests six characteristics that in combination are relevant to a case for self-determination.
1. The group has a common character and a common culture....
2. ...people growing up among members of the group will acquire the group culture, will be marked by its character.
3. Membership of the group is, in part, a matter of mutual recognition.
4. ...groups membership of which is one of the primary clues for people generally in interpreting the conduct of others.
5. Membership is a matter of belonging, not of achievement.
6. The groups concerned are not small face-to-face groups, members of which are generally known to all other members. They are anonymous groups where where mutual recognition is secured by the possession of general characteristics....
Avishai Margalit and Joseph Raz (1990) National self-determination. Journal of Philosophy LXXXVII, 9, 439-46, p.443-447.

Having evaded the justification issue in this way, democrats are left with the simpler question: who fits these criteria? In the overall ethical context of secession, this is a question of detail, but it accounts for the bulk of discussion on secessionism - for instance, all the detailed assessments of Quebec secessionism. Nationalists approach secession with a similar bias: they will only talk about which group is a nation, and the boundaries of its homeland. If nationalists are agreed that a minority is a separate nation with its own distinct territory, they will concede secession. Statistically, that is very rare.

There is apparent agreement among democratic philosophers, that some collectivities can not be a 'demos'. Most theorists of democracy would indeed agree, that supporters of a football club have no right to secede. But again, there is no inherent reason for this. The example was used by Margalit and Raz to trivialise the issue - but the consequences are not so funny. Margalit and Raz are in effect saying that if such a group tried to secede from a democracy, it may legitimately be opposed by military force. Defining certain groups as 'non-demos' gives a democratic government a licence for repression of that group. At worst, it gives a democratic government a licence to kill them, under conditions of attempted secession.

It is a serious issue, because most liberal-democratic theorists are agreed that a simple political minority is not a demos. That consensus leads almost inevitably to political repression. After all, the point of democratic political philosophy is to establish that democratic government is 'legitimate' - meaning that people are morally obliged to obey the government, even if they disagree with it. (The claim that the government is entitled to maintain the demos by preventing secession, is a special case of the claim that a government is morally entitled to govern). The democratic anti-secession consensus condemns minorities to a form of political serfdom, permanently complying with the will of the majority.

circumventing democracy by secession

And so to the core issue... why are pro-democracy political philosophers so hostile to secession? Is it because of what secession is, or because of what secession does? Apparently the second of these: it is not the secession itself they fear, but its effect.

Secession allows the democratic process to be circumvented or evaded, without a direct attack on the government. In a secession, the existing government is not overthrown, the nation is not colonised, the people are not murdered or enslaved. Something is added, a new state. Only territory is taken away - disregarding nationalist claims that national unity is itself sacred.

The unwillingness to concede secession says something about the nature of democracy itself. If democracy was about maximising autonomy for individuals or groups, democratic theory would not be so hostile to secession. If democracy was about maximising possibility and change, democratic theory would welcome new states. In reality democracy is primarily an innovation-minimising social structure. Democracy is a noble form of government, in the eyes its supporters, so they ought to be happy to see 10 000 democracies on this planet. However, they clearly are not. Read their literature on secession, and you will see how unhappy they are with a multiplication of states.

Here too is a parallel with nationalism. There are ethno-nationalists who want to see 10 000 autonomous territories on this planet, because that is the approximate number of 'peoples' by their definition. But the majority of nationalists have a conception of 'the nation' which suggests a population of several million. They would call a group of 500 people a 'tribe', even if they had their own separate language (such small distinct ethnic groups are not unusual). Mainstream nationalists would not concede them any territorial autonomy, comparable to that of nation states - and no nationalist would concede any purely political secession.

Together, nationalism and democracy have produced a specific world order. It is still emergent, because not all territories are nation states, and not all states are democratic. But the character of this world order is clear. It has a relatively limited number of states, there is no possibility to form new states, and the internal political process in each state has a universal legitimacy claim. To put it crudely: societies come in 200 flavours, and 200 flavours only. Same 200 last year, same 200 next year. This is not a favourable climate for innovation in the long term. Whoever designed this geopolitical order, did not like innovation.

The 'designers' of the geopolitical order, insofar as they exist, are the political theorists and philosophers of the dominant political culture. The world as it is today, reflects the dominance of western liberal-democratic ideas. A Marxist would see things the other way round - that the underlying structures generate the philosophies. But either way, it is possible to reject the 'design'.

Innovation is not wrong. New states are not wrong.

If something is impossible inside a democratic society, but possible elsewhere, then that something is not inherently wrong. A blanket prohibition on all social forms which are incompatible with democratic nation states, is not morally legitimate. The national-democratic geopolitical order forms such a prohibition - because it has a limited number of states, and each has a tendency to internal uniformity (national culture and values). And of course it is very difficult to alter the entire geopolitical order itself.

The ethics of secession should be treated as part of the general assessment of the principles underlying the present world order. In particular, there is a need to introduce 'innovation' as an issue to be considered in political ethics - and not just as a personal preference of some individuals. Ethical systems often assume a static society: ethical principles are supposed to be valid for thousands of years. In the ethics of secession, I fear the reverse is also true: if you apply the standard principles, then the world will stay the same for thousands of years. That is plainly wrong.

Nation Planet: nationalism resources
Why democracy is wrong