Secession as an International Phenomenon: From America's Civil War to Contemporary Separatist Movements

By Don H. Doyle | Go to book overview

By the Force of Arms

Violence and Morality in Secessionist
Conflict

ALEKSANDAR Pavković

The basis of statehood, and of unity, can only be general acceptance by the
participants. You cannot kill thousands of people, and keep on killing more,
in the name of unity. There is no unity between the dead and those who
killed them.

Julius K. Nyerere, “Why We Recognized Biafra”

How does a group acquire the right to secede from an existing state? This is the central question that contemporary normative theorists of secession—including Christopher Wellman in this volume—address. The question I address in this chapter is quite different: can the use of military force in order to achieve or to prevent a secession be justified on moral grounds? Even if a group does have a right to secede, this does not necessarily imply that it is morally justified to use military force and to kill people in an attempt to secure secession or independence. Whether or not there are rights to independent statehood, one can still ask, is independent statehood worth the sacrifice of human life and the misery that attends any military conflict?

The word “independence” has, partly as a consequence of decolonization, gained honorific connotations that may incline us to answer this question unhesitatingly in the affirmative. This chapter attempts to offer some reasons to resist this inclination.

Nyerere’s eloquent plea against the use of force to secure the unity of a state raises a parallel question: is maintaining the unity of a state—its territorial integrity—worth the sacrifice of human life and misery that attends any military conflict?

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