Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

The Ethics of Secession and Postinvasion Iraq

Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

The Ethics of Secession and Postinvasion Iraq

Article excerpt

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, one of the most important political debates in which Iraqis have engaged is whether or not one or more groups in Iraq may have cause--and the will--to secede. One of the aims of this essay is to outline the central arguments or theories of the ethics of secession and examine whether or under what conditions these normative theories would be satisfied in a postinvasion Iraq. This involves specifying what conditions, or what train of events, generate obligations to permit secession. Postinvasion Iraq is an important case study, because most of the normative theories of secession were developed with more ideal, much tamer cases in mind (for example, advanced liberal-democratic multinational states). The case of Iraq reveals the complexities and range of issues that bear on our moral theories about secession.

I argue that our moral judgments about any particular secession involve comparing the moral goods that are likely to be realized through secession with the goods that may be realized by nonsecessionist political institutions. The two dominant normative theories of secession focus on the secessionist group, which national self-determination theories conceive as a nation holding a right to self-determination, and just-cause theories conceive as having a remedial right to secession as a victim of injustice. The Iraq case suggests that this is a flawed way of thinking about the issue. I argue that secession is more legitimate when fair multinational arrangements are not on offer; and that the fairness requirement involves examining constitutional arrangements from the point of view of all groups.

The argument is divided into four parts. Part one begins by outlining three important social facts that provide the necessary backdrop to any normative evaluation of secession in a post--Saddam Hussein, postinvasion Iraq. These are then connected to the two central justifying arguments in the ethics of secession-national self-determination and just-cause theories of secession--that are outlined in sections two and three of the paper. In these two sections, I argue that the case for secession is more compelling when fair multinational arrangements are not on offer. Unfortunately, both national self-determination and just-cause arguments tend to focus on the seceding group as the potential right-holder (either because it constitutes a "nation" or because it has a remedial right as a past victim of injustice). This perspective is too limited, since the issue of "fairness" requires us to consider constitutional arrangements from the point of view of all groups. This leads into part four, which examines the Iraqi Draft Constitution of summer 2005 as a baseline from which to reason about secession. More precisely, this paper considers whether this agreement represents a fair or just constitutional alternative to secession.


Three social facts provide important background information to any normative discussion of secession in a postinvasion Iraq. These are the type and degree of diversity in society, the past history of injustice, and the degree to which the population in the would-be secessionist region is mobilized behind the national independence (or secessionist) project.

Iraq is characterized by deep diversity along different dimensions, particularly, ethnicity, religion, language, and nationality. It is ethnically diverse, comprised respectively of Arabs (75-80 percent of the population), Kurds (15-23 percent), Turkomen (3-10 percent), and Assyrians and Armenians (3-5 percent). (1) It is religiously diverse within the majority Arab population between Sunni (32-37 percent) and Shi'a (60-65 percent), and there are also pockets of other minority religious groups, such as Christians and Yazidis. (2) It is linguistically diverse, with the dominant languages being Arabic (80 percent) and Kurdish (20 percent), although many Kurds are effectively bilingual. …

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