Academic journal article Trames

Is There a Liberal Right to Secede from a Liberal State?

Academic journal article Trames

Is There a Liberal Right to Secede from a Liberal State?

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

A defining feature of the international political landscape over the last fifty years has been the enormous growth in calls by national minorities and other groups for increased territorial autonomy, including the right to secede and create their own, independent state. In addition to raising important strategic, sociopolitical and legal issues, this phenomenon of political fragmentation has also raised fundamental philosophical questions concerning the justice of existing international boundaries and the right to political self-determination. Consequently a popular topic of scholarly debate has in recent years been the question of how liberalism should respond to demands by groups for a right to secede and establish their own state. An arguably less popular, but perhaps more perplexing, question is how liberalism should respond to demands to secede from a state that is a functioning liberal democracy. What liberal reasons might a group have for seceding from a liberal state? The issue is further complicated still when we consider that the secessionist group might itself not be liberal and intend to create an illiberal state. The purpose of this paper is to consider these questions by examining the notion of a liberal state and the rights that individuals have within such a state to disrupt its territorial integrity.

2. A liberal right to secede

2.1. The nature of plebiscitary right theories

Put simply, secession is a refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the state's claim to authority. It is a bid for independence from the state through the appropriation of the state's territory. However, the secessionist need not deny the state's authority as such--only its authority over him/her, the members of his/her group, and the territory that they occupy (Buchanan 1991:10). In most cases demands for secession are demands for both independence from the existing state, and sovereignty for the new state that the secessionists intend to create. However, secession, ex hypothesi, need not mean the creation of a new state, as the secessionists may wish to leave one state in order to become a part of another state--so-called irredentism.

Numerous theorists have advanced a variety of different theories which stipulate what types of groups--if any--possess a normative right to secede, in what circumstances and why. One type of theory--Nationalist theories--grant a right of secession to groups which qualify as nations (e.g. Miller 1988, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1998, Nielsen 1993, 1998) while so-called 'just-cause' theories grant a right of secession to groups that are the victim of a specified injustice for which secession is deemed to be an appropriate remedy of last resort (e.g. Birch 1984, Buchanan 1991, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1997). In contrast, this paper focuses upon the claim that liberalism includes a moral right of secession by examining what are termed liberal-democratic, or plebiscitary right, theories of secession.

A plebiscitary right of secession grants a right to "...a majority in any portion of the territory of a state to form its own independent state if it so chooses, even if the majority of the state as a whole opposes their bid for independence" (Buchanan 1998:15). The most prominent advocates of this type of theory are Harry Beran and Christopher Wellman. Beran argues that all individuals have the right to determine their own political relationships--a right which he claims to be both consistent with, and required by, liberal democratic theory (Beran 1984, 1987, 1988, 1998). Indeed, two defining features of liberalism are its individualistic moral ontology (Barry 1996:432) and a commitment to a strict thesis of moral egalitarianism where all individuals are of equal moral worth and thus possess equal rights and entitlements (Kymlicka 1989:140). Beran claims that if we accept this characterization of the individual as a self-governing chooser, then we must also accept that each individual enjoys moral dominion regarding themselves such that only their consent is sufficient to determine membership of any association, including political associations such as the state. …

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