01 November 2017

When is secession justified?

As we see in the cases of Kurdistan and Catalonia, most governments nowadays take the position that existing borders are sacrosanct -- that is, secession is never legitimate, regardless of historical and cultural realities. That's clearly untenable as an across-the-board rule because there are many cases of secession that almost everyone now accepts as legitimate -- for example, the American colonies leaving the British Empire, the Baltic states seceding from the USSR in 1990, Third World colonies breaking away from British and French imperial rule in the mid-twentieth century, etc.

I think each case should be judged not based on some general rule about secession, but on how the individual case would affect freedom and justice. So, for example, seceding from an authoritarian state to create a democracy (Baltics 1990, for example) would be just, but seceding in order to preserve slavery (Confederacy 1861) would clearly be unjust. The US in 1776 was justified by this criterion since it created a representative government for people who had not been allowed democratic rights under the previous imperial rule -- the thirteen colonies had no representation in the British Parliament.  Secession by Southern states today (something that was muttered about by some during the Obama administration) would be unjust because black people in those states would very likely suffer suppression of their civil and political rights, while gays and non-Christians might well become targets of outright persecution.

Catalonia is a difficult case to judge under that or any other criterion. Spain is a democracy and an independent Catalonia would be a similar one, so the level of individual freedom would be about the same either way. It's not clear that the majority in Catalonia even wants to leave, given the low turnout in the referendum (though that was the Spanish government's fault for trying to suppress the vote), and earlier polls had shown a majority for staying with Spain. On the other hand, the government's brutality during the referendum and its efforts now to suppress Catalonian autonomy are arguably violations of human rights and may well be turning Catalonians against Spain -- so the government, by the very act of suppressing independence, may be creating the conditions that justify it.

The Spanish government would have been wiser to follow the example of Britain in 2014, which let the referendum on Scottish independence go forward without interference. As it happened, Scotland voted by a wide margin to stay in the UK, and the matter is now pretty much settled.

Kurdistan is a clearer case. The Kurds have suffered terribly under Iraqi rule over the years, so much so that expecting them to reconcile themselves to staying permanently part of Iraq is asking too much. The history of the KRG suggests that an independent Kurdistan would be more competently run and probably better at protecting human rights than the Iraqi state is.

It's not possible to come up with a blanket verdict that secession is always right or always wrong. Each case has to be judged based on how it would advance or retard other, more fundamental values.

[This post is adapted from a comment I wrote here.]


Blogger Green Eagle said...

Correct me if I am wrong, but it is my impression that the future United States was made up of colonies, and was never a part of England, in the sense that, say, Lincolnshire or Kent were. So their rebellion was not an act of secession, but a colonial revolt, which is not the same thing at all as what happened with the War of Southern Treason.

And may I babble on a bit: What we know of as Iraq was, under the Ottoman Empire, three Vilayets, one of which was roughly the area occupied by the Kurds. Iraq as a single country was created under the English mandatory power by Conservatives (most notably, one Winston Churchill, whom you may have heard of) for the sole reason that they thought it would be cheaper to rule one country than three; thereby permitting a tax cut back home- an interesting example of the persistence of Conservative obsession down through the ages. This self-serving act on the part of the mandatory power hardly, in my opinion, provides much justification for the forced unification of Iraq. Not really, in my opinion, a fair analogy to the Southern secession, or even Catalonia.

01 November, 2017 12:34  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Green: Those distinctions are valid ones, and I think they support my view that these things need to be evaluated on a case-by case basis. The thirteen colonies were not treated as part of Britain, but my impression is that if they had been so treated -- that is, given representation in Parliament in the same way that constituencies in Britain were -- it would have addressed much of the resentment and the colonies probably wouldn't have separated (and in that case the present-day UK would include a sizable chunk of North America, but that's another topic).

The case of Iraq illustrates the absurdity of the one-size-fits-all stance of "existing borders are always sacrosanct". An artifact of colonialism such as Iraq, with no historic sense of common identity, is treated exactly the same as an actual nation with a history and identity stretching back millennia, like Iran or China. Such a policy that ignores the realities on the ground won't work in the real world.

01 November, 2017 15:35  
Blogger Green Eagle said...

"they support my view that these things need to be evaluated on a case-by case basis."

They certainly do.

"given representation in Parliament in the same way that constituencies in Britain were -- it would have addressed much of the resentment..."

I seem to remember that thing about "taxation without representation." Of course, that may have just been an excuse, and the "founding fathers" may have just gone ahead with their revolution regardless of the excuse.

"Such a policy that ignores the realities on the ground won't work in the real world."

And never has. Another example of a country created by colonial exploitation is Mexico, which only had an existence of a couple of decades before California, Arizona and Texas broke off (12 years in the case of Texas, 24 for California.) And as with Iraq, we hear constant justification of its sacrosanct nature as a country, based on this tiny period when it was forcibly united by a colonial power.

01 November, 2017 16:57  
Blogger Kevin Robbins said...

I don't know about the merits of any of these secession movements. At the risk of seeming obsessive, I'll just point out that the Russians are quite active in their efforts to divide and stoke the flames of division. I suppose that's going to always be part of the flotsam that has to be waded through to reach the true merits.

03 November, 2017 09:14  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Green: I would argue that Mexico is different, having existed nearly as long as the United States, even if for most of that time its territory was smaller than at the beginning. The constant threat of the US as a neighbor has probably helped consolidate the sense of national identity there. And I'm not aware of any significant secessionist movements in Mexico.

Kevin: Foreign interests and interference are often a complicating factor -- which doesn't mean people in some cases don't have legitimate reasons for wanting to separate. In most cases, unfortunately, the merits of either side of the conflict are not familiar to most Americans.

03 November, 2017 09:20  

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