Secessionism and Separatism Monthly Series: "Secession and Secessionism" by Alexandar Pavković

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H-Nationalism is proud to publish here the first post of its “Secessionism and Separatism Monthly Series,” which looks at issues of fragmentation, sovereignty, and self-determination from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Today’s contribution, by Associate Professor Aleksandar Pavković (Macquarie University, Sidney), introduces the concepts of secession, secessionism, separatism – and other related terms – examining their main features and typologies. Please feel free to participate in the discussion by commenting on the piece.


Secession and Secessionism

The concept of secession is highly contested; scholars still disagree on what should count as a secession.[1] As the concept of secessionism appears to be less contested, we start by expanding J. R. Wood’s original definition[2] as follows: secessionism is a political program based on the demand for a formal withdrawal of a bounded territory from an internationally recognized state with the aim of creating a new state on that territory, which is expected to gain formal recognition by other states (and the UN). 

Secessionism clearly differs from separatism which aims only at a reduction of the central authority’s control over the targeted territory and its population; as Wood pointed out, political movements can and often do  ‘oscillate’ between separatist and secessionist programs, initially starting with the former and ending up with the latter and vice versa. Irredentism, in contrast, aims at the withdrawal of territory but not at the creation of a new state. According to the 1960 UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Peoples, granting independence to colonies does not breach the ‘territorial integrity’ of UN member states; since a colony, accordingly, is not part of the territory of an existing state, decolonization is not a secessionist project.

In contrast to many decolonization movements which have had widespread support within the colony and outside it, secessionist movements usually face various obstacles in their efforts to mobilize the populations of the targeted territory for secession and to find support they need among other states. In some cases, many members of the majority national group on the targeted territory (which the secessionists are trying to mobilise) prefer to remain in the existing state to seceding; as a result, the secessionists may fail to gain majority support for secession (as they recently did in Scotland).  Powerful states often find territorial fragmentation of the states they support contrary to their geostrategic interests; many states/governments also regard support for a secession from another state as a possible encouragement for secessionist ambitions of their own minorities. These are only some of the reasons why some (but not all) secessionists find it difficult to find support for their cause among outside states. Some central governments dilute support for secessionist projects in their states by appearing ready to accommodate almost any demand that secessionists make, short of the formal recognition of independent statehood. Others, on the contrary, appear ready to resist (and suppress if necessary) any secessionist demand – and armed secessionist insurrection – without any attempt, at least initially, to calculate the relative costs of such an open-ended resistance.

This highly selective sample of potential obstacles to a secessionist project suggests that such a project may be pursued in different political contexts by different means, ranging from popular mobilization for a secession referendum to organized violence and armed insurrection. Some secessionists are, by their ideology or religious conviction (such as a form of Islamic jihad), committed to the use of violence. Other secessionist programs refer to acts of violence or repression suffered by their target secessionist group, implying that a violent response may be needed to remedy those injustices. The secessionist programs offering to remedy past or present injustices by creating new states find support in contemporary academic remedial theories of secession: according to the latter, once a group has suffered a particular kind of injustice(s) in an existing state, it thereby gains a right to secede and to create a new state of its own; such a right may be defended by military force.[3]

Unlike academic theories, secessionist programs often contain various nationalist narratives; for example, of how the dominant national group in the host state has oppressed, in various ways, the targeted national group; or how its ancestors were first to settle the territory or first to establish a state on it, and thus its current heirs are entitled to a state of their own; or how the dominant nation has a state of its own, while the target nation, equal to it in every respect, is left unjustly stateless – and thus deserves a state of its own.

But in the current, secessionist, Islamic State and in the imagined Caucasian Emirate (in Russia) those who are considered entitled to a state of their own are identified by their religious conviction, not nationality. Moreover, secessionist programs in some EU states and Canada have sought to mobilize support of all individuals and groups on the territory, not only the majority (target) nation. Their secessionist programs are not (or not only) narratives based on national identity. Nonetheless, national identity and related nationalist narratives still provide powerful instruments for secessionist mobilization. But they are not the only instruments – and they may be losing their previous central role at least in some secessionists’ programs.

There are then at least three key elements to secession: mobilization of a population in support for a new state, the formal withdrawal of a territory and the creation of a new state on it. A secession has been attempted when all three elements are present. It is fully successful if the new state is admitted to the UN; it may be successful enough, at least for its leaders, if a few important states formally recognize it. And even if not formally recognized at all (as Somaliland is not), its citizens may still consider their de facto (and thus fragile) state a better outcome than being a part of their former host state (e.g. Somalia). For the creation of a new state to be an attempt at secession, it matters not whether the host state agrees to it, resists it or dissolves in the process; nor whether it is brought about by violence or by negotiation. This view is contested: some  – mostly international lawyers – require the host state to resist the attempt at secession (otherwise it would be a mere voluntary cession of territory) and others require the host state to retain its identity after secession (otherwise it would be state dissolution and not secession).


[1] See Aleksandar Pavković  ‘Secession: a much contested concept’ in Territorial Separatism in Global Politics, eds. D. Kingsbury and Costas Laoutides, London: Routledge, 2015, pp. 15-29.

[2]  John R. Wood ‘Secession: A Comparative Analytical Framework’, Canadian Journal of Political Science, vol. 14, No 1, (1981), p. 110.

[3] For a discussion of normative remedial theories see chapters 4, 22, 24 and 25 in the The Ashgate Research Companion to Secession,  eds. A. Pavković and P. Radan, Farnham: Ashgate, 2011. For a legal variant of a remedial theory see Peter Radan’s contribution to this series (to be published in November).

As usual Professor Pavkovic offers an unusually lucid explanation of a subject that is often surrounded by passions and claims that make it all the more important for the dispassionate scholar to sort out just what is going on when a sub-national population declares itself a separate polity. One of the most interesting points here is that success is often defined by the recognition of the newly proclaimed state by third parties and or by the United Nations. One estimate is that about half of today's member states in the UN had their origins as break-away states, including the USA. How many dozens or hundreds more have failed, I'm not sure anyone has calculated, but history is full of lost causes. One of the driving ideas of any separatist movement is that "we" are a people, and "we" are fundamentally at odds with "them," the existing nation, and therefore must have a state of our own. I'm always skeptical of such claims and worry that there are still a good many of "them" inside the separatist "we" who are not going to fare very well in a new separate state. Another question I want to advance is: apart from considering what is good for "we" or "them" how does a particular separatist movement, or separatism in general, serve the common international good? Is it good for the world to have more an more states set apart by real or imagined ethnic, religious, cultural identities? And must everyone stay put for this kind of separation to work? To serve world peace?

I think Prof. Pavkovic's introduction into the theoretical and practical issues related to secession and secessionism is a great starting point for a more in depth discussion of the topic. I'm somehow choosing the easy way in commenting upon the post, as several questions came to my mind while reading it. Firstly, there is no mention in the post of "self-determination", a very elusive concept, yet often used when it comes to making secessionist (or separatist claims): where does "self-determination" stand in relationship to secessionism and separatism? Secondly, can we really think of ISIL as an example of a secessionist movement? If we work with the definition advanced by Prof. Pavkovic on the footsteps of J. R. Wood - "secessionism is a political program based on the demand for a formal withdrawal of a bounded territory from an internationally recognized state with the aim of creating a new state on that territory, which is expected to gain formal recognition by other states (and the UN)" -, it appears to me that the latter element (the expectation to gain formal recognition) does not play a very important role within the ISIL ideology.

A very useful and pertinent introduction to the series. I am most interested in understanding secessionist movements when they fail to garner the majority support of their own constituency (as in Scotland or Quebec) or if they do (as in Catalonia or East Pakistan/Bangladesh). This leads to some interesting argumentative notions: a. the imagination of the host-state as an oppressor is contested amongst the oppressed nation; b. the host-state does well to co-opt (some) ethnic elites of the dominated nation who then play the role of spoilers in the secessionist project; c. secession and its aftermath is deeply contested within the oppressed nation with respect to bringing perceived socio-economic and political benefits after independence is achieved; despite cultural homogeneity, the heterogeneity of political views (separatist, secessionist) is manifest within the oppressed nation. For Catalonia or East Pakistan/Bangladesh, the obverse is true where the imagination of the host state develops through stages to become more oppositional and less conciliatory leading to a majority clamouring for secession. It is interesting to note whether the same tendencies will play out through a stage-development theory in Scotland or Quebec.

Second, the discourse on nationalist secession should of necessity exclude Islamic Jihad or enitites such as ISIS. First, the Islamist discourse privileges the community (Umma) of like-minded believers which comprise different nations and nationalities. Second, the concept of the Umma does not recognise any political frontiers or boundaries rather a transnational community organised under a Caliphate. Third, as the phenomenon of ISIS makes clear, different nations and nationalities comprise the organisation with a territorial conception which stretches from Syria to South Asia. This territorial conception is, furthermore, not bent on seceding from an existing territory but capturing existing territories through brute use of power and coercion.

I am grateful for the above comments. May I in reply just note the following:

Self-determination’ was not mentioned primarily because it is a highly contested concept in the context of secessionism, a project which aims to break up ‘the territorial integrity and political unity’ of a UN member state. The UN documents referring to the right of self-determination explicitly deny that this right threatens in any way this sacred duo (for a slightly different interpretation see the forthcoming contribution of Peter Radan in this series). This of course does not diminish the appeal of this right to secessionist movements which simply ignore the UN insistence on the sacred duo.

Secessionism and world peace. Secessionist projects are not aiming to promote or secure world peace. Very few, if any, mass political movements have this aim, so perhaps one should not expect secessionists to take up this cause. The UN, as an organization of states committed to securing world peace, is also committed to protecting the territorial integrity and political unity of its members. These two aims are not always compatible and at times the UN has failed to achieve world peace and to protect territorial integrity of its members. One could argue that attempts at peaceful/consensual secession by avoiding conflict contribute to world peace even if they do not aim to do so.

ISIS or DAESH as a secessionist project. There is no doubt that the leaders of this movement aim to create an institutional framework which, in its reach and authority, goes beyond that of a modern nation-state (as it is practiced today). But one can note that they have (1) mobilized the population of the territory which they hold in support of the their institutional framework (2) formally withdrawn that territory and its population from the jurisdiction of two UN member states (3) successfully established the institutional framework of a modern state - including judicial, fiscal, welfare and educational institutions (as well as propaganda services) (4) been able to hold and defend the territory against the former host states and their allies – and have thus been effectively recognized as belligerents (whether they are legally so recognized I leave to the lawyers to tell us) (see also Stephen M. Walt, ‘ISIS as Revolutionary State: New Twist on an Old Story’, Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 2015 who notes that their use of mass terror is not a novel revolutionary technique). At the moment they do not seek membership of the UN (probably in part because they do not recognize its legitimacy) but they do seek recognition of their institutions from Muslim believers around the world. This looks to me as an ongoing attempt at secession, which, like many others, may fail.

On Separatism and Secession: some questions for discussion Alexander Pavković’s recent contribution prompts some important questions in respect of secession, international law and the nature of nationalist movements in the twenty first century (as does the comment by Don Doyle). Is there, for example, a clear distinction between secessionism and separatism in theory or in practice? For the most part case studies tend to use the terms interchangeably. In Don Doyle’s excellent edited volume, Secession as an International phenomenon (2010) the entry in the index under separatism refers the reader to secession. Likewise, in the introduction to Secessionism and Separatism in Europe and Asia: To Have a State of One’s Own (Routledge, 2013) Alexander Pavković and his co-editor Jean-Pierre Cabestan note the blurred nature of the overlap between the two concepts and the way they are used by scholars in the field. Do we need a more analytically nuanced distinction between the two concepts or do they really address the same issue? There are forms of separatism that do not entail separation from the existing state and indeed have no relationship to nationalism or the demand for political independence. In the historical literature ‘separatism’ has been used for various religious movements (to separate from the existing church) and in respect of demands for denominational education outside a state system. This is not what is normally intended when scholars concerned with self-determination are discussing demands for secession and/or separatism.


It is also important to appreciate that, as Alexander Pavković reminds us, not all secessionist/separatist movements demand an independent state. This may be strategic rather than principled. For a considerable amount of time Catalan nationalists argued for greater autonomy from Spain which would provide for separate development in the Catalan region short of establishing an independent state. This is no longer the case and it is arguable that achieving high levels of autonomy increases the demand for independence rather than dilute it. The contributory factor in this shift seems to be the presence of a sense of nationality and national attachment, which is often not present in regional movements. The essence of the nationalist project remains the establishment of independent states; otherwise would they be nationalists? It may be that co-nationals do not embrace this objective, and this was the case in Scotland in 2014, but this does not change the objective of the nationalist movement there or elsewhere. There are special cases where this does not occur, as in Crimea, but these cases tend to be exceptional.


One interesting by product of the Scottish referendum on independence is that many of those who supported political independence denied that they were either secessionists or separatists. I was taken to task on a number of occasions for using the word secessionist to describe those in favour of an independent Scotland. I am at a loss to know what to describe such a campaign in the absence of either of these terms. I am less inclined than Alexander Pavković to accept the United Nations position on the self-determination of colonial peoples. The UN position reflects the dominant view of states in the post war world and ignores the fact that for many hundreds of years imperial states were considered legitimate in the world system (until the 1950s). As an organisation that represents the state system and the states themselves, the UN had to make the case that decolonisation was qualitatively different from the claims made by nations within existing states or in the newly independent states. If decolonisation had been considered an act of secession, then it would have been possible for sub-state nations within a newly established state to demand secession and independence for themselves.


By drawing the line and insisting that decolonisation was not an act of secession the UN maintained the Westphalian consensus that territorial integrity was the primary focus for international law. This has had disastrous consequences for, as Walker Connor regularly reminded his readers, most states are not ‘nation-states’ but are in fact multinational states (or at the very least they are states within which there are distinct ethnic groups with distinctive histories and cultures). Alexander Pavković has outlined the concerns that states have in respect of fragmentation, but perhaps it is time to reconsider this matter.


There are now approximately 200 states in the world, a significant increase on the number in 1945. Most are members of an exclusive club: the United Nations. Yet this is a club of states not one that includes the 500 or more nations that can be identified around the world (this is probably an underestimate). Not all nations seek independence but many do and the nature of the state system is strongly biased against these demands. The United Kingdom and Canada seem to be the exceptions; both acknowledge a right to secede on the part of the sub-state nations within the state’s territory. This is not the case elsewhere in Europe (Spain for example) and secessionist/separatist demands are normally met with overwhelming force by the existing state. States such as India, China and Turkey have become imperial powers in respect of their distinctive sub-state nations (the same case might be made for Spain).


The fact that these nations are contiguous rather than overseas changes little; the similarity between these cases and that of the British state and Ireland 1800-1921 or the Austro-Hungarian Empire may provide a basis for comparison. Indeed, a case can be made that the attitude of India, Turkey and China to Kashmir, the Kurds and Tibet is a colonial one. Each of these states are occupying powers in an area where distinctive nationalities are predominant and treat the indigenous population as subordinate if not inferior. In each case there is substantial evidence that the state has committed crimes against humanity against these nationalities.


In this respect Don Doyle draws our attention to some significant issues in the contemporary world. States tend to deny that sub-states nations have the right to self-determination that includes secession (and are supported in this by the UN). The current Spanish government makes this explicit in the context of Catalonia on narrow legalistic grounds but there is widespread support for this view. India has a law which explicitly makes it illegal to support secession from India (the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act), while other states resort to intimidation or worse to subdue such demands. Don Doyle highlights the many secessionist movements which have failed and is rightly concerned at the consequences of secession for those who are not part of the ‘nation’ which seeks independence.


It is possible now to identify ‘we’ and ‘them’ in sub-state regions if the international community is willing to do so. While it is complicated, it is certainly possible to hold a census in contested areas and limit independence to areas where those seeking independence are predominant. This would limit the territorial claim of both the state and the secessionist movement. The Irish case offers some historical evidence – nationalists claimed the whole island but a sizeable group in the north-east wished to remain with the existing state. In turn the extent of the territory controlled by the Unionist majority in the north east included a significant minority of nationalists who did not wish to remain in the UK. This anomaly was never addressed by nationalists or unionists. The re-partition of Northern Ireland in the 1920s would have reduced the percentage of nationalists within the region considerably and possibly prevented the type of polarisation that ensued. Furthermore, a bill or rights for everyone in Northern Ireland would have undermined the legitimacy of Unionist dominance, but this was never put in place.


Could this case be applied more generally today? It is now possible through opinion polls and other surveys to provide exact numbers for ethnicity, nationality and religion; it is also acceptable to have internationally monitored referendums on the possibility of independence; and it is surely possible to insist that independence should involve internationally supported safeguards for minorities within the new state. We can learn from the disaster of the inter-war period when new states ignored the commitments they made to the League of Nations and the international community to secure the rights of national groupings within the new state.


I would argue that international agreements to secure secession in a stable and peaceful manner can serve world peace. The refusal of the state system to acknowledge the right of nations to political independence has probably contributed more to international instability since the end of the Second World War than anything else. Thus, it may be the time to reconsider the dominance of the state in discussions on secession and to bring the nation back in. One way forward might be to discuss the possibility of a constitutional right to secede that would become an international charter.

It was a pleasure to read Brian Girvin's comments. For the moment I shall only raise one issue - or rather a question.

It seems to me that his comments assume a particular normative position regarding separatism/secessionism. He seems to assume that nations or groups that declare themselves to be nations, have a prima facie right to a state of their own. From this it follows that if these groups are living in an 'alien' state (a state dominated by another nation), they should be given the opportunity to choose, via a referendum or another majoritarian device, to leave the alien state and create a state of their own (or join another state).

I note that this normative position is contestable and contested. In fact, I have found very few if any good theoretical grounds to support it. In other words, I have found that the advocates of this position cannot explain what features of nationhood give rise to a prima facie right of a nation to a state or to secession (why should nations, and no other groups, have this particular right?). The argument from separate culture and separate political life are to me clearly insufficient to explain how this right is created and gained: if a group is culturally distinct from another and has a political life distinct from other groups, why should it be 'given' or 'assigned' a state of its own? What is it about these two features that gives a right to the group that possess them, to have an exclusive control a particular state apparatus and exclude from that control members of other groups which also possess these two features?

Let me add that the argument from the putative existence of a national right to a state is also contestable. In many states, no doubt, single national groups control their state apparatus to the exclusion of others. But do they have a special right to do so? If so, who is authorized to create and confer that right? So far as I can see, these (pseudo-legal?) rights are sometimes conferred by constitutional or legal acts of particular states. These legal acts are enacted by representatives of national groups. If so, these are self-conferred rights: a national group, through its representatives, confers to itself the right to a state of its own. What is it about a national group that gives it such an authority and power? Why can't I confer a right to myself to a piece of land while a nation can, allegedly, do so? Perhaps nations do in fact control their own states but have no right to do so? If so, stateless nations would have no prima facie right to a state of their own: and would no doubt feel unjustly left out of the division of the spoils of the statehood. But is this feeling of injustice a good argument for introducing the conception of a right to state of one's own?

I hope you do not mind my raising these normative questions. Perhaps Brian Girvin assumes no prima facie rights of this kind and he would be able to give another normative argument for a general need to identify whether an ethnically defined group, concentrated on a territory, desires a state of its own. But if we abandon an explicit or implicit conception of the right to a state of one's own, I think that we can approach the problem of secessionist and separatist conflicts in a way which does not privilege potential state-centered solutions to those conflicts.

I welcome Alexandar’s (if I may use the familiar) comments on my post and his question in respect of the normative foundations of a right to self-determination for a national community that allows for the establishment of a new state. I share his view that such a claim is not self-evident, though I draw rather different conclusions for this than he does. It is also the case that both the normative political claim to a state are widely contested within the literature and most scholars reject them, except under quite stringent conditions. This involves a remedial right to self-determination when the existing state has committed egregious human rights violations in respect of the national community. It might be said that for these theorists, it is the violation of human rights and not the claim to be a distinctive national community that justifies secession and political independence.

I adopt both a normative and a political/historical analysis in respect of the right to establish a new state. The most persuasive case for reconfiguring international politics in this way has been provided by Margaret Moore, Harry Beran and Kai Nielsen among others. Moore in particular provides a satisfactory explanation for why all nations should receive equal recognition even when (particularly when?) they do not have states of their own. Moore recognises the serious practical problems in this and discusses the question of indeterminacy, problems of instability and the challenge of overlapping nationalities. What she offers is an alternative viewpoint for addressing the place of the nation within the international system. The most sustained treatment of this appears in The Ethics of Nationalism which challenges the existing normative principles of international order and offers strong reasons for bringing the nation to the centre of the system.

It should be added that none of these alternative models support an absolute right to self-determination or independence. Indeed some (including myself) would argue that reconfiguring international politics to take account of nationality does not imply support for political independence in all or indeed most cases. Thus, to take a recent example, there are those who support the right of Scotland to have a referendum on independence, but would not vote in favour of it (as seems also to be the case in Catalonia). If the normative case to be made is should all nations be states, then the answer is probably no. But if the normative case is should all nations have the right to self-determination which might include political independence under certain conditions established and agreed by the international community, then the answer is yes. I will return to this question in more detail in my contribution later in the series.

However, I consider the political/historical argument to be the main justification for supporting a right to secession and statehood. I would follow John Stuart Mill’s view that ‘Where the sentiment of nationality exists in any force there is a prima facie case for uniting all the members of the nationality under the same government, and a government to themselves apart’. Mill does not make this absolute and questions why certain nations would wish to lose the benefits of remaining within the existing state. However, the balance of his argument is that if a political case can be sustained by a nationality within a state for self-government then that should be respected. The same point can be made against this position as Alexsandar does, ‘why should nations, and no other groups, have this particular right?’. In principle it would be difficult to make the case that other groups who make such a demand should be denied it, but the political reality is that most claims for self-determination and secession are based on some notion of nationality. I am currently examining the history of political independence since the French Revolution and in virtually every case those promoting secession employ nationalist arguments in support of their claim.

Indeed, the westphalian state system is built around such a notion of identity; but the identity is religious and not national. The state system that we inherit is a response to the religious wars of the 15th and 16th centuries and to stabilise the system there was a de facto acknowledgement that the religion of the people would be the religion of the ruler. Membership of the state was thus privileged in terms of the religion adopted by the monarch, though of course minorities continued to live within that territory. However, the nature of the state reflected this religious identity and this was not restricted to European States: the Ottoman Empire and Czarist Russia employed very similar norms in respect of religion. What has happened is that nationality has replaced religion in defining the state in the 19th and 20th centuries. Increasingly, communities everywhere identified with a nationality and each nation defined itself in respect of other nations (especially within multinational states). Nationalism, democracy and sovereignty have become closely identified since the American and French Revolutions and alternative political systems have not been able to compete with this powerful mix.

Furthermore, the state remains the most significant political institution in the international system, despite globalisation and multi-level governance. Politically, having one’s own state remains attractive because of the authority, legitimacy and power attached to it. The other reason why having a state is attractive is that the existing states remain very reluctant to seriously engage with demands based on nationality and this often leaves the sub-state nation with little option except to demand a state of its own. A further reason why nation and nationality may be attractive is that in practice the international community gives greater legitimacy to self-determination based on nationality than it does for religion, race or other considerations.

The paradox here is that the very strength of the state system and the normative values attached to it (especially territorial integrity) made alternative solutions less attractive both to the state (usually until it is too late) and to the sub-state nation. The existing state system rests on pre-democratic and pre-modern foundations and seems unable to address the instability that democracy, nationality and sovereignty brings to the international order. In the absence of a realistic alternative, sub-state nationalisms, whether oppressed or not, will continue to seek an independent state.

I was very happy to read Brian's comment: he has now, very nicely, shifted the problem of the source of the right to secession to the ‘international community’ which is “to establish and agree” on the conditions under which “a nation” would have the right to secession (“political independence”).

There are number of questions that need to be answered if the authority to grant the right to secession be transferred to an “international community”.

First, what is to count as the “international community”? The simple majority of the UN member states in its General Assembly without, necessarily, the support of all of the 5 permanent members of the UNSEC? Or is an alliance of one or more of the 5 permanent members with other UN members sufficient to form this kind of community? Or any other non-state community?

Second, which body is to recommend that the the right to secession be granted? A specially established group of states/governments similar to the Decolonization Committee of the UN - again established by the UN Gen Ass? A judicial body similar to ICC? What makes any one of such bodies authoritative regarding the right to secession? Is this a case of legal adjudication or political decision making? In short, which international body is authorized or should be authorized to recommend secession?

Third, the legal documents which would provide the basis for a grant of that right (e.g. UN General Assembly Declarations) would also have to define
(a) who is the potential holder of the right to secession (that is, what is a nation? )
(b) what is ‘political independence’ – e.g. membership of the UN?
(c) what is the normative basis (beyond the right to self-determination) for secession (is it a democratic majority or a remedy to abuses – and if so, which abuses?)
(d) what actions can the ‘international community’ take to enforce its decision to grant this right (e.g. military actions against the host state, occupation of the contested territory etc).

Fourth, in order for the ‘international community’ to have the normative authority (implied in Brian's comment), both the legal regulations and their enforcement would have to be impartial and to be recognized as impartial by the great majority of its members. If its legal regulation effectively exempts powerful states or veto-wielding powers and if its enforcement is selective – only aiming at the host states which could be subdued by military action or widespread sanctions regimes, the international community would no longer be that which it purports to be – but just an alliance of powerful states acting in concert against a state or state which can hardly resist that type of action.

As we can see, we are still far from satisfying any one of these conditions. In particular, there is no consensus as to what ‘a nation’ is (in contrast to a ‘colonial people’ or ‘a people in a colony) or what normative basis secession should have. Note also that in domestic laws - allowing for secession of Scotland or Quebec - it is not nations that are granted this right, but territories and its citizens.

The problem is not that we cannot imagine a world in which these four conditions will be satisfied – the powers of scholarly imagination are enormous – the problem is that in our imagined world the territorial borders of the current states would be unilaterally set by ‘the international community’ and that individual states would lose their present legal and effective power over their territory. One can indeed imagine a World State in which current states would no longer have that power – but why would any state in the current world want to transfer its power over its own borders to an ‘international community’? To tell the states that they have not caught up with the modern developments of democracy and popular sovereignty (which allegedly denies them the powers over their own territory which were acquired in pre-modern times), would not be seen as a persuasive let alone a conclusive argument for the transfer of states' power over their territory to the ‘international community’.

Finally, let us take an imaginary example. The international community is considering granting the Hawaiian nation the right to secede from the US – while the USA is still a state as it is now : the most powerful state in the world with a legal tradition which explicitly denies the right to secession to any part of its territory.

What options does the US have? Perhaps to :
(1) Change its legal system so as to allow the international community to grant its states or parts of the states to secede from the US.
(2) Lobby to prevent the enactment of any international legal regulation which would give the international community the overriding power over its own laws re: secession.
(3) Refuse to recognize any international legal regulation which would grant this overriding power to the international community.
(4) Undermine the impartiality and enforcement of this regulation through multiple bilateral agreements exempting the US from this regulation.
(5) Oppose by force if necessary any enforcement of such legal regulation within its jurisdiction.

Now try to imagine what changes are necessary in global politics, US politics and the US legal system in order to make option (1) a plausible option. Most importantly, can one imagine any one party or party leader in the US advocating option (1) and having any chance of succeeding in realizing this option?

Now replace US in the above template with: PR China, the Russian Federation, India, Pakistan, Israel…and any other state capable of resisting ‘international community’ and see what results you get.

PS I agree with Brian's last sentence, that sub-state nationalisms will continue to seek an independent state. But if this is taken to be a general prediction about the world, one would need to qualify it, perhaps with 'unless some other ideology, more powerful than nationalism (e.g. religious fundamentalism) replaces nationalism as a major instrument of political mass mobilization'.

Many thanks to Alexander, Brian, Cristian, Farhan, and Don for these excellent comments on Alexander's original post!  Please feel welcome to continue debating and discussing these issues on this thread, and to join in on the conversation if you have something to say. On Nov. 20 we will be circulating our second monthly post in the series, giving us even more to think about. 


David Prior


Although the very interesting posts by Aleksandar Pavkovic and Brian Girvin have turned the discussion to other aspects of the secessionist phenomenon,  I would like to contribute with some thoughts to questions of definition and conceptual clarification, building on Pavkovic’s opening post.  I focus on the distinction between separatism and secessionism (an issue touched also by Brian Girvin), as well as on the distinction between secessionism (as I argue below, I find “separatism” a more appropriate term) and secession; I argue that it is a prerequisite for such clarifications to have in mind a definition of nationalism.

I agree with Aleksandar Pavkovic's distinction between secessionist and decolonization movements (although both types tend to evoke the principle of self-determination). I also think that Wood’s definition of secessionism is an appropriate one (although I find that its final clause, i.e. “which is expected to gain formal recognition by other states (and the UN)”, limits unnecessarily the concept). I also agree with Pavkovic’s implicit distinction between secessionism as a political process or movement and secession as a particular outcome of secessionist conflicts. I argue, however, that a different understanding of “separatism” would be analytically more fruitful, one that would accommodate a number of similar – though distinct – types of movements. In this respect, I find that Alexis Heraclides work on secessionism offers valuable conceptual clarifications. Heraclides (1992, p.400) defines a separatist movement as “an active political movement within an independent state that aspires to some form of territorial separatism, ranging from autonomy to independence”. Based on this explicitly broad definition of separatism, Heraclides identifies three basic types of separatist movements with regards to their goal:

a) secessionist movements, i.e. those that aim at independent statehood (Heraclides calls them “stricto sensu” separatist movements)

b) autonomy-seeking separatist movements (“limited separatist” in Heraclides’ terminology), i.e. those that aim at a degree of territorial self-rule sort of statehood (from limited autonomy to federal status)

c) irredentist movements (Heraclides calls them “secessionist-merger” movements), i.e. those that seek to secede from the host state not with the aim to create an independent state, but to join a (neighboring) existing state.

Based on these definitions, secessionism constitutes only one type of separatist movements, although it is probably the most common form of separatism.

The various types of separatist movements constitute necessarily nationalist movements, if we adopt an understanding of nationalism as a political movement/ideology that aims at territorial self-rule on behalf of a (cultural, ethnic and/or territorial) community. In differentiation with Girvin’s view that the “essence of the nationalist project remains the establishment of independent states”, a number of scholars (Delanty & O’Mahony 2002: 104; Hastings 1997: 3; Smith 1991: 74) have pointed out that the aim of national self-government does not refer solely to independent statehood, both historically and logically speaking. Even in Ernest Gellner’s famous definition of nationalism (“a political principle that holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent”), the political unit is not reduced to an independent state. To be sure, the relationship between nationalism and independence has been a powerful one; however there is no necessary association. If this was the case, only secessionist movements (as defined above) could be considered as nationalist; pertinently, a number of separatist movements that demand greater autonomy but not statehood (for strategic or other reasons, especially during the initial stages of their formation)  could not be categorized as “nationalist”, which would be rather distorting.

Having defined secessionism as an – indeed dominant – type of separatist processes/movements, “secession” can similarly be understood as one type of separatist outcomes, i.e. the creation of a new state, recognized by an important number of other states, without the consent of the host state. Other possible outcomes include “de facto statehood” (i.e. secession without or with very limited international recognition), “state partition” (i.e. separation of a state through agreement or referendum) and “state dissolution/collapse” (characterized by the double absence of consensual process and state succession). Among the positive consequences of separating analytically processes (separatism, secessionism, etc) from outcomes (secession, etc), is the avoidance of terminological disagreements; e.g. instead of debating whether former Yugoslavia represents a case of “secession” or “state dissolution”, one could argue that it is a case of secessionist and separatist aspirations that resulted in state dissolution.




Delanty, Gerard & O’Mahony, Patrick (2002) Nationalism and Social Theory: Modernity and the Recalcitrance of the Nation, London: Sage.

Hastings, Andrian (1997) The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Heraclides, Alexis (1992) “Secession, Self-Determination and Non-Intervention: In Quest of a Normative Symbiosis”, Journal of International Affairs, 45:2, pp.399-422.

Smith, Anthony D. (1991) National Identity, Reno: University of Nevada Press.