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. As the concept of secessionism appears to be less contested, we start by expanding J. R. Wood’s original definition 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.
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).
 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.
 John R. Wood ‘Secession: A Comparative Analytical Framework’, Canadian Journal of Political Science, vol. 14, No 1, (1981), p. 110.
 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).