“8.5 All countries should have in their legislation the inalienable right of regions to separate themselves unilaterally from the state of which they are part, in accordance with the right of self-determination”.
In this article I shall argue that such a right to unilateral secession of a minority from a state is not something we should unthinkingly support. That in many cases it would only create endless amounts of new conflicts.
Say there’s a state, state X, the population of which consists of a majority, group A, and a suppressed minority, group B. From the point of the minority there’s a lot to say in favour of a universal right to separate itself from state X and start its own state. The people of group B would no longer be suppressed by group A, for start. And group B would be able to live according to its own traditions and religion and speak its own language. The cultural development of the minority would therefore profit greatly from founding this new state.
The chances of group A agreeing with dividing their state in two, however, are almost non-existent. The region where group B lives might have valuable natural resources, or labour is very cheap there, or the main harbour or airport happens to be in this region. And even if it’s the most useless plot of land in the whole world, in its relations with other states size equals status and therefore giving part of its territory and population will make state X go down in the hierarchy of international relations. This means group A will oppose the secession of group B from their common state.
If there is no universal right for the minority to seceed from the state, there is, at this point, a conflict between the majority, which provides the political and military leaders in the state, and the minority, which will soon come to the conclusion that they can lobby as much as they want, but the majority won’t let them separate peacefully. A violent conflict will follow.
But what if this right to secession does exist? Under international pressure, the state will have to give in and the minority is free to found its own new state. This is not, however, the end of the trouble. There is hardly a region in the world that is inhabited by a completely homogenous group. Every minority has a minority of its own. What is to happen with this ‘new’ minority? Should it found its own state? And so on and so on?
And what will happen if all minorities in neighbouring states seceed as well? How will the exact borders of every new state be determined without starting new conflicts? And what are all these tiny little states to live off? As UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali wrote in 1992: ‘Yet if every ethnic, religious or linguistic group claimed statehood, there would be no limit to fragmentation, and peace, security and economic well-being for all would become ever more difficult to achieve’.
So what to do if both having the right and not having it most probably lead to (violent) conflicts? Minority issues are very complex and there is no universal solution. There are, however, two options that can be applied in most cases: autonomy and establishing minority rights within the borders of the existing state. Both of these will not make either the majority or the minority entirely happy instantly, but they allow the two groups to live together on a more equal basis than before. In other cases there is no other option than secession because the two groups really can’t share a state. In those cases secession should happen under the guidance of the international community and on the basis of worldwide understanding that these concern exceptions in these particular cases. But even then it comes back to guaranteeing the basic rights of the ‘new’ minorities, in order to avoid new minority conflicts from erupting.