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The Ethics of Secession

By Gabriel Andrade
28 Oct 2017

Secession has been a hot topic in 2017. At least two important plebiscites have been celebrated: Kurdistan and Catalonia. Predictably, both the governments of Iraq and Spain have strongly condemned them as illegal, respectively. Both governments are right: the laws of both Iraq and Spain do not allow for secession in the terms that the plebiscites propose it. But, then again, basically no country in the world (Ethiopia and Canada being notable exceptions) accepts the legality of secession. Yet, throughout history, secessions have happened multiple times. Technically, almost all of them have been illegal. Morally, some of them have been celebrated, some not. What, then, is the criterion to judge the morality of secession? What makes George Washington a hero, but Jefferson Davis a villain (if at all)?

Ethicists do not agree, and there are various normative theories of secession. But, most ethicists do agree that, when it comes to considering the morality of secession, the analogy of a divorce is quite useful. Up until relatively recent times, divorce was illegal in some countries (especially Catholic countries). But, that illegality does not prevent ethicists from considering whether or not divorce may actually be moral in some circumstances. Let us, then, use the analogy of a divorce to consider the most common normative theories of secession.

The first group are the so-called “statist theories.” According to this doctrine, secession is never moral, because it inevitably leads to instability, and this may ultimately end in violence. In order to avoid scenarios like the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia, it’s better to refuse the right of secession at all. In this Hobbesian perspective, strong states are the only guarantee against the ever-present threat of human violence.

While it may be true that secessions do usually lead to instability and violence, this doctrine disregards the national struggles of oppressed peoples against imperial powers. Empires may provide peace (Pax Romana, Pax Britannica, and so on), but that does not imply they are just.

In a sense, these theories of secession are very similar to the untenable moral religious doctrines that oppose divorce at all costs. Under this conservative view, marriage is an eternal bond, no matter how abusive the relationship may be. According to this line of argument, domestic violence may be bad, but a battered woman must never abandon her husband, because to do so would lead to civilizational collapse. Most ethicists would agree that this is ludicrous.

Another group of theories (probably the most popular amongst ethicists and political philosophers) are the so-called “just cause theories of secession.” Under this view, secession could be moral, but only if an injustice is committed against the people that wants to secede. At first, it seems like a reasonable view. Once a marriage has taken place, divorce proceedings should not be so easy if one of the parties does not agree to it. Only if there is evidence of abuse (or any other fault) should a judge allow for a divorce from non-consenting parties.

But, the problem is that these theorists do not seem to agree on what exactly an injustice is. They usually mention genocide. That is reasonable enough; but many secessions now considered just (such as the American Revolution) had nothing to do with genocide. In fact, taxation without representation is not usually considered grounds for secession.

These theorists also usually claim prior occupation and seizure of territory as sufficient grounds to justify secession. Again, this seems reasonable, but it does not take us very far. Almost all nations have been formed with one form of conquest at some point in their history. And even if no formal conquest has been made to annex a territory (such as, say, Biafra as part of Nigeria), it is usually the legacy of a former imperial power that never asked in the first place, whether the inhabitants of a particular territory wanted to belong to any given country.

Furthermore, most countries are not really formed as consensual marriages. Regions are never really asked whether they want to belong to a given country. Nations are formed more like arranged marriages. If one of the spouses was forced into marriage, then it would seem that, even if the relationship is not abusive, the non-consenting spouse has a right to a divorce, even if the other spouse opposes it.

The third group are the so-called “self-determination theories.” According to this doctrine, regions have a right to secede, even in the absence of injustices. But, they can only do so if their national culture (made up of language, religion, historical origins, etc.) is different from the country from which they aspire to secede. Thus, even if Quebec is not particularly oppressed by Canada, it would have a right to celebrate an independence plebiscite, because of its cultural difference.

This theory also seems defective. It would be basically the same as saying that non-consenting spouses have a right to divorce, if and only if, their culture is different. Under this view, if a non-abusive Muslim man marries a Christian woman without her consent, she can get a divorce; but if a non-abusive Christian man marries that same Christian woman also without her consent, then she has no right to a divorce. The relevance of the cultural distinction is very arbitrary.

We are left off with the so-called “choice theories of secession.” This is probably the most radical approach. According to this doctrine, any group that aspires for independence should be granted a plebiscite. However, these theorists are careful enough to point out that the seceding region should be protective of human rights (this criterion would have refused the American South the right to secede, as slavery is clearly an abuse of human rights), and that the seceding and remaining States should be contiguous and viable.

Although it is the most radical of all secession theories, it seems to be the most reasonable when using divorce as an analogy. If consent for marriage was never given in the first place, then a spouse has a right to divorce, regardless of whether or not there is cultural difference, or whether or not there is abuse in the relationship.

But, what about those cases in which the person did give consent to the marriage, and now wants a divorce from the non-abusive, non-willing spouse? Most ethicists would agree that, in those cases, divorce would not be ethical. Most regions have been incorporated into nations without directly being asked for consent. But some have actually been asked, although not necessarily directly. Catalonia, for example, approved the Spanish Constitution of 1978 with more than 90 percent of the electorate. That constitution clearly stated that Catalonia would be part of Spain.

It would then seem that, in cases such as Catalonia, regions aspiring for secession must not be granted that right. But, upon considering this, a new problem arises. Perhaps, after all, secession is not entirely analogous to divorce. For, in a marriage, the same person that gives consent, now aspires for a divorce. In secession, it does not necessarily work that way. The Texan voters that (indirectly) asked to be accepted in the United States in 1846, are not the same voters who request secession in 2017. Generations pass, and it does not seem fair that the new generations must carry the burden of what their ancestors decided.

These are not easy questions, and there are no definite answers. But, given that democracies work on the principle of the consent of the governed, ethicists should err on the side of “choice theories of secession.” These are the theories that best approximate the idea that a people should be ruled only by a government that they agree to.

Gabriel is a professor at Universidad del Zulia, Venezuela. He has written books on Darwin, the existence of God, the afterlife, and postmodernism.
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