Year XXXVII, 1995, Number 1 - Page 40




The question of whether secession is legitimate or not can be tackled from various points of view, some of which have coloured the reactions which the secessions that have followed on one from the other in East Europe and the ex-Soviet Union have provoked in the political world, public opinion and the press.
Three approaches to the issue of secession can be identified, in order to simplify and categorise the debate. I would define them in general terms as follows: 1) a descriptive approach, 2) pure moral revulsion, 3) analysis of the moral basis of secession.
The Descriptive Approach.
What I have called the descriptive approach establishes a link between the right to secede and raison d’état. Defining this approach as descriptive signifies leaving aside value judgements, to identify instead the mechanisms that give rise to certain behaviours.
The raison d’état concept, understood as an ideal-typus, enables us to describe the behaviour of the state authority for guaranteeing the state’s security – both on its inside, through the monopoly over physical force and the imposition of coercive rules (laws) so as to settle conflicts between individuals or groups, and towards the outside, through a policy designed to maintain or increase the capacity of the state to defend itself from possible foreign attacks, in a situation of international anarchy (power politics).[1]
It is a fact, and as such can be described, that the very existence of the state, and the existence of many sovereign and independent states, generate behaviours which, when lacking, can on the one hand cause a state to lose its legitimacy in as much as it is unable to carry out its pacifying role internally, and on the other can cause a state to cease to exist as an entity (if it is conquered or incorporated into another state) and so, also in this case, it loses its legitimacy since it is incapable of guaranteeing the defence of its own citizens.
Secession, that is the breaking away by a group from an existing state entity to create a new state entity, is objectively an attack on the raison d’état of the original state nucleus. On the one hand such an action in effect calls into question the state’s right to settle disputes by means of the law, that is it denies that right in as much as the secessionist state removes itself from the original one. On the other hand, secession attacks the external security of the state, both in real terms (reducing its territory and resources, etc.) and symbolically (loss of international credibility).
Such implications induce states to assert their right to oppose secessions, even by force.
Clearly, such an approach neither considers the possible manipulation of the concept of internal and external security by the ruling class, or the causes that can drive a group to claim the right to secede.
The logic of this viewpoint does not prevent actors in international relations from accepting principles that seemingly contradict the premise of the outlook itself, namely the prevailing of raison d’état over considerations of any other type. This is a reference to the United Nations Charter (art. 1, para. 2 and art. 55), to the International Convention of the United Nations on civil and political rights, and to the International Convention of the United Nations on economic, social and cultural rights, which proclaim the right of all peoples to self-determination, as well as to various documents approved by the UN, among which, for example, Resolution 1514 of 14th December 1960 that declares, among other things, that in virtue of the right to self-determination, all peoples should freely determine their own political status, an affirmation that seems to accept the principle that full political independence can be achieved also by means of secession.
But when examining the UN’s Declaration on the principles of international law concerning friendly relations and co-operation among states (24th October 1970), we find that: “By virtue of the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples ... all peoples have the right freely to determine, without external interference, their political status ... Nothing in the foregoing paragraphs shall be construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent states conducting themselves in compliance with the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples as described above and thus possessed of a government representing the whole people belonging to the territory without distinction as to race, creed or colour.”[2]
Clearly these affirmations are contradictory when they proclaim the right of self-determination when in fact this is denied, and such affirmations deny it when it is conceded. But the factor which creates the contradiction is specifically connected to raison d’état, that is to a principle which, notwithstanding other considerations, underlies the raison d’être of states: the defence of the territorial integrity of sovereign and independent states.
Moreover, the actual behaviour of states reveals ambiguities: faced with a secession or an attempt to secede, states generally do not acquiesce or oppose on the basis of accepting the principle of the right to secede or not, but rather by adopting various positions on the basis of strategic calculations: opposition by the state directly involved in the secession, and a tendency to recognise secession if it concerns another state; opposition or ambiguity by the international community in the initial phase of the secession process, and acceptance of the fait accompli once the new state has been consolidated, as well as acceptance of the repression of secessionist attempts in order to avoid international tension.
This serves to demonstrate that, above and beyond affirmations of principle, the world system of states, for as long as the states remain sovereign and independent, will tend to bring about the triumph of the raison d’état principle, which prevents the problem of secession being faced up to, except in terms of an increase or reduction of the power and security of states.
And yet it remains true that the world is heading towards ever greater interdependence and that this has had up until the present time, and will have ever more so in the future, certain consequences for international relations, and in particular for the behaviour of states in terms of their defence to the bitter end of absolute sovereignty over their own territory (the integration processes underway in various parts of the world and in particular the most advanced process, represented by European unification, exemplify this). But the logic of this behaviour can not be easily incorporated with that deriving from secession phenomena. The processes of integration, in fact, have the function of increasing the possibilities for managing the security (in a political, military and social sense) of citizens, and hence a partial cession of sovereignty can be directly linked to its recovery within a broader framework (the definitive overcoming of absolute sovereignty will be possible only through a world federation). On the contrary, acts of secession, as outlined above, reduce the possibility of managing security, since they generate new competitors, and in the worst cases, a new enemy at the border: the loss of sovereignty over a part of the territory is not compensated for in any way, and is therefore considered as a pure and simple attack on the existence of the state.
Pure Moral Revulsion.
In the event that a group’s will to secede meets decisive resistance by the original state and that this develops into armed conflict, world public opinion is bound to express moral censure, which is often fed by the crudity of the images that have become an inevitable component in media coverage.
Such reactions are in substance purely emotive, and often not shaped by any reflection about the legitimate interests or otherwise of the parties concerned, or of the values that they are seeking to assert or defend. There is simply no willingness to condone the acts of brutal violence which always accompany warfare. In as much as these are emotional reactions, they are the stronger and more drastic the shorter the conflict lasts: if it drags on for a long time, such reactions weaken until they disappear altogether.
Another characteristic of such reactions is the fact that the effects of repressing a secession attempt have a clearly identified guilty party that is external, and that therefore allows us to feel that we do not share any responsibility and so can condemn with a certain moral self-satisfaction.
Not so automatic, or at least so attentive, are the responses to the same images of suffering and death when these concern those groups of people that permanently live below acceptable standards of living, and whose only right to be affirmed remains solely the right to life. The persistence of this situation does not trigger off scandal, and the guilty party is not external, but is that group of people to which we all belong, which is often in practice, if not rhetorically, little disposed to renounce its privileges.
An apparent attitude of moral revulsion can also be displayed by governments not directly involved in the events, when they hold that a state is repressing a secessionist group particularly brutally. As a result of the difficulty for heads of state to align themselves on principle in favour of those who call into question the concept of state sovereignty, or as a result of a particular situation of international relations, it may prove opportune for heads of state to take refuge in the moral condemnation of the means employed in repression, without however supporting the secession itself, with the aim of not weakening the support of their citizens (who could reject an albeit passive complicity) or with the goal of maintaining relations with the original state intact.
Moral revulsion is therefore normally triggered off not so much by the political and moral implications of secession, but by the means employed for repressing it. As such, then, it does not contribute in any way to an understanding of the phenomenon itself, and, as a result, does not provide a viewpoint which permits us to judge it, and to extract from this, conclusions of a practical nature.
Analysis of the Moral Basis of Secession.
An approach that is characteristic of the current debate about secession concerns the moral problems that underpin it, and which provide the basis or otherwise of its legitimacy. According to this perspective secession is considered to be a means to defend the rights of groups, as distinct from the rights of individuals, to the extent that these rights are exercised collectively or in the name of a group.[3]
One of the possible justifications for secession derives from establishing a parallel between revolution and secession, according to which, if the former is justified, then a fortiori so is the latter. But the parallel is acceptable or not depending on the meaning attributed to these terms. If revolution is meant simply as one of the possible ways in which individuals or groups contest political authority, then it is possible to consider secession as simply an alternative method. In this case, its legitimacy or illegitimacy can not be judged in absolute terms but, as Allen Buchanan argues,[4] in relative terms, in accordance that is with the rights or interests that secession would violate or suppress (for example property rights).
In reality, the term “revolution” possesses implications much more profound than simple revolt against a government or regime. The revolutionary periods of the past have been characterised by a profound intolerance of a political and social situation that blocked the advancement of human emancipation, an intolerance embodied by a class that however took upon itself the assertion of universal values. And the revolution which federalists maintain they are the vanguard of, has even completely severed every link with a single class; the federalists present themselves under a banner which all people can identify themselves with as individuals, no longer bourgeois or proletarian, as well as being above and beyond all national boundaries. The legitimacy of the revolution lies precisely in the fact that it is proclaimed and carried forward in the name of all humanity.
Secession, even when it is justified and approved solely on the basis of the assertion of a right or opposition to an injustice, is an event that is bound to the “here and now”; it does not launch a message for the future, and it is a defence of partial rights, of a group as such, not representative of, or a symbol for, humanity as a whole.
To this could be objected that every battle, albeit limited in time and space, that is made in the name of a value (liberty, justice, tolerance, etc.), to the extent that it opposes those who trample that same value underfoot, possesses a resonance and universal significance, that is it actually enlarges the ambit in which the value in question is recognised and put into practice and, symbolically, renders its progressive realisation at the universal level conceivable.
The European federalists themselves, who are conducting the battle for the European federation, often stress the enormous symbolic importance that the affirmation of the principle of international democracy, even among the European states alone, will have for the future of the entire world. But the objective for the federalists of this battle is not the defence of the rights of Europeans tout court, but rather, as has been repeatedly stated in this review, of Europeans inasmuch as they represent a world people in-the-making, whose rights it will be possible to affirm fully if, and only if, Europe as an autonomous entity is superseded. For this reason the creation of the European federation is a revolutionary and morally legitimate event; while it would become morally illegitimate if it were conceived of as (and were reduced to) the creation of a state entity that is closed and defended for the protection of a group, here the European citizens, separated from the rest of the world.
But it is perhaps still more important, for judging the legitimacy or otherwise of secession from the moral point of view, to deal with another problem: the possibility of comparing different values and of creating a hierarchy among them.
On this subject, it is useful to reflect on what Max Weber wrote, albeit with other ends in mind, with reference to the founding of a method of historical and social sciences. An enquiry into values as the motor of human action needs to consider: 1) the suitable means for realising certain values; 2) the conceptualisation of the situation that one seeks to achieve and the consequences that will be produced by the affirmation in practice of a particular value, including the possible attendant consequences not expressly desired; 3) a comparative analysis of the practical consequences of other values in order to discover possible incompatibilities.[5]
By applying this method of enquiry into values to the problem of secession it becomes clear that, even when secession is championed in the name of liberties that have been denied, or as a result of the violation of the rules of justice (for example in the case of discriminatory wealth redistribution), nevertheless the consequences of accepting the right to secede, in real and symbolic terms, for the present and future of humanity are such as to make its moral legitimacy unacceptable.
Lincoln’s assertions concerning the fact that the United States’ right to defend itself from being broken up derived from high obligations towards humanity, not only for the present but also for future generations,[6] indicates the correct viewpoint on which to base an evaluation of the problem.
The highest obligation towards humanity is clearly the defence of the right to life, only having guaranteed which can other fundamental rights (freedom and equality) be defended. To defend the right to life means above all, even if not solely, creating a situation in which the recourse to warfare for regulating relations between groups is prevented, and this implies creating the conditions for overcoming international anarchy, which is the fruit of the world’s division into sovereign and independent states.
Secession is a move in the opposite direction, in as much as it increases the number of subjects in competition with each other, giving life to new sovereign states whose independence, precisely because of its recent acquisition, becomes the fundamental value to defend against possible acts of revenge.
The inevitable consequence of such a situation is the use of the typical instruments for guaranteeing maximum group cohesion for defensive purposes, nationalism, which is the accentuation of a group’s peculiarities, of its diversity compared to other groups, which become potential or actual enemies. Nationalism can be the motor, the cause of a secessionist attempt, but even in cases where other reasons provoke the attempt to secede, in the event of success nationalism will be the result.
Now, the question we need to ask ourselves is the following: is it more just, from a moral point of view, to pass on to future generations a world split up into little sovereign and potentially bellicose states, or a world that is united, or moving progressively toward union, in which war can be banished and the demands of freedom and justice, as individual or group rights, can be satisfied within the framework of common laws.
The answer to this question is provided by Buchanan, when he employs the concept of “liberal paradox” to justify the denial, in particular cases, of the right to secede: those who adhere to liberal values would be tempted to leave individuals, being capable of thought and decision, free to abandon their own rights. Nevertheless liberals could coherently oppose secession which was directed to the creation of an anti-liberal state, on the basis that the secessionists would deprive also their children and future generations of these rights. According to this argument, then, resisting secession is justified not for the good of the secessionists themselves, but for the good of others whose freedom and opportunities would be seriously damaged by the secession, and who are not able to express their thoughts about this decision.[7]
To these assertions he adds that such arguments lose all their effectiveness if people are free to leave the illiberal society.[8] But a similar condition, which it is already difficult to imagine being put into practice by an illiberal society, is not applicable if the value that one aims to defend is that of peace, the right to life, since it is possible in the ultimate to flee from a bellicose state, while it is not possible to escape the mechanism of international anarchy which influences and conditions the world system of states.
Hence, if we want to contribute to handing over a more peaceful world to future generations, we must accept another paradox, which could be called the “paradox of peace”, and accept in the final instance the repression of secessionist attempts, even by force.
In this way, we have identified the consequences produced by the practical affirmation of secession, intended as the realisation of the values of freedom and justice, and the incompatibility of the means employed with a value that is higher up the hierarchy of values, both in a logical sense (peace and the defence of life are logical priorities compared to the defence of freedom and justice) and a practical one (secession objectively contributes to aggravating the conditions of international anarchy which impede, by denying the affirmation of peace, the realisation of the other values).
If the conclusions which the above analysis leads to are correct (that secession is morally illegitimate), it is necessary to find alternative answers to what Buchanan defines as the problem of the defence of groups’ rights, while keeping clearly in our minds the fact that the growth of global interdependence must be the framework in which to deal with the problem of secession, and that this framework contains the potential which will enable the conception of different solutions and responses to the demands that lie at the heart of secessionist claims.
It is not sufficient to pose constitutional limits that guarantee the correctness of the aims of secession and impede abuses,[9] since what is at stake is not a question of correctness, but rather the direction of history. The great river of history is flowing towards interdependence and the superseding of the world’s division into sovereign states. However, the free choices of people can place obstacles in the path of this process, by consolidating old barriers or erecting new ones. This concerns substantially a choice between two options, union or disintegration, in the knowledge of what the costs are in both cases – not only for the present, but also for the future.
If we consider the evolution of international relations, it becomes clear that, with the end of the bipolar world, we have begun to consider any conflict between states as an issue that concerns the entire world community, represented by the UN. But at the same time, also conflicts between groups within a state have become a global problem which demands a response through the so-called right to intervene. However much its goals and the means for applying it remain vague, this represents the conception of a situation in which, when the rights of groups within a state have been trampled on, such rights can find recognition and a defence without falling into the trap of secession.
Naturally this is still an imperfect solution: “intervention” is often held to be an intrusion, an act that is neither desired nor proper. But it is a concrete indication of the fact that the destiny of individual people and groups is entering a sphere in which responsibility must be assumed by all towards each other, that the rights which citizens desire to have recognised are no longer strictly, and substantially, “national”, but are becoming cosmopolitan rights and as such must find guarantees for their defence above and beyond the existing states.
Certainly, these guarantees can be effective, that is no longer conditioned by raison d’état, only when a single constitution embraces all the world’s peoples in a voluntary union, and when a federal structure, the world federation, puts into practice the division of powers among the different levels of government, within which every individual or group will have the possibility to call on a defence that is tailored to their demands.
But in the transition phase it is important to pay attention to signals, even if they are weak and confused, if they are potentially progressive, and to be very cautious when faced with signals that seem stronger and more immediately decipherable, but which will lead us in the wrong direction.
Nicoletta Mosconi

[1] See Sergio Pistone, “Ragion di Stato”, in Dizionario di politica, Turin, UTET, 1983.
[2] Cited in Jacques Brossard, L’accession à la souveraineté, Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 1976, p. 100.
[3] Cf. Allen Buchanan, Secession, Westview Press Inc., 1991.
[4] Allen Buchanan, ibid.
[5] Max Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre, Mohr, Tübingen, 1922.
[6] Allen Buchanan, op. cit.
[7] Allen Buchanan, ibid.
[8] Allen Buchanan, ibid.
[9] Allen Buchanan, ibid.


Share with