Dr. CK Raut

ck PhotoThe recent referendum in Crimea to secede from Ukraine and its aftermath continues to provoke arguments, mainly against it, in Nepal. Hardly any opinion surfaced considering it from the perspective of the rights of people; rather most media and intelligentsia used appeal to fear in their coverage, and supported sanctities of the integrity of states as if all modern boundaries were itched on the planet some four and half billion years ago at the time of its creation.


As old as the history of states itself and the most central aspect of freedom–the topic of secession, has been turned into a taboo, as it goes against the existing states and it is the states that control everything, from textbooks to TV screens. Nonetheless political scientists, theorists and philosophers did find their interest revived, in the post-1990 period due to increase in not only the attempts of secessions but also the successful secessions.

Theories of secession can be broadly put into two categories: Choice Theory that argues for a general right of secession for any reason and Just Cause Theory that advocates secession to rectify grave injustices.


Several politicians, philosophers and political scientists have provided justifications for secession, and the condition under which it should be sought and granted.

One of the American founding father and the 3rd President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, told the Secretary of War under President James Madison, on June 20, 1816: “…you have fairly stated the alternatives between which we are to choose: (1) licentious commerce and gambling speculations for a few, with eternal war for the many; or (2) restricted commerce, peace, and steady occupations for all. If any State in the Union will declare that it prefers separation with the first alternative, to a continuance in union without it, I have no hesitation in saying, ‘let us separate’.” Similarly, the 15th President of the United States, James Buchanan said to Congress in 1860 in the support of secession: “The fact is that our Union rests upon public opinion, and can never be cemented by the blood of its citizens shed in civil war. If it can not live in the affections of the people, it must one day perish. Congress possesses many means of preserving it by conciliation, but the sword was not placed in their hand to preserve it by force.”  In the United States, at least prior to 1861, secession as a constitutional right was implied de jure. Similarly, the US President Woodrow Wilson believed that the right of national self-determination could secure a lasting peace in the world by granting national and ethnic groups their own states. It is the same ideology based on which the USSR had adopted a constitution in 1924 containing an express right of secession for all of its ethnic republics. Similarly, China had implemented the express right of secession into its 1931 Constitution.

The right to secession, as observed, has been advocated on many grounds from the right to liberty and freedom of association to self-determination of peoples. The consent being an important democratic principle, the will of majority of people to secede must be recognised. Secession is also a way out to preserve identity, language and culture from assimilation or destruction by a dominant or more powerful group. Similarly it is also a means of self-defines when a dominant group presents lethal threat to minority or ruled class or the government cannot or have no intention to adequately defend an area. Moreover, escaping discriminatory redistribution like unfair budget allocation, tax schemes, regulatory policies, resources control and economic and development programs that distribute resources away to another area is yet another prime justification for secession. It is also argued for the liberation of an economically oppressed class in a regionally concentrated area inside a state.

The leading democratic liberal philosopher and authority on secession, Allen Buchanan, whom even the Canadian Government consulted for handling of the constitutionality of secession case, in his landmark book published in 1991, argued for limited rights of secession to protect liberty, escape unfair economic practices, further diversity, preserve cultures, and self-determination. He argues that if a liberal democratic state inflicts an unjust rule on any portion of its citizens, that state loses its legitimate right to control that portion of territory and the people in the region have a moral right to secede. Robert McGee, on the other hand, in his work ‘Secession Reconsidered (1994)’, looks at secession from a libertarian perspective, but holds it justified only if secessionists can create a viable state on a contiguous territory. Similarly, scholars like Alexander Martinenko (“The Right of Secession as a Human Right”, 1996) argue for secession as an inherent right of all the peoples in the world.


There are secessionist movements going on all over the world; more than thirty strong secessionist movements are thriving only in South Asia. If the only left means for freedom is violence, then all sorts of conflicts are bound to happen. It has been argued that had there been an express constitutional right of secession in the U.S. Constitution, the American Civil War itself would have been prevented. The same is more or less true for all bloody secessions and secessionist movements around the world. Thus it is affirmative to institutionalise an international legal framework for the right of secession. There have been procedures for constitutional secessions already in Ethiopia, the European Union, St. Kitts and Nevis, Austria, France, Singapore, Switzerland and Canada. On a broader scale, the intergovernmental organisations like the UN should be playing a role for its institutionalisation. But on the contrary, the UN can be diametrical to the right of people to secede, even when expressed through a plebiscite, as the reign of the rights and aspirations of people has been placed in the hands of five permanent members of the UN holding veto powers. Having the UN as a protector for national integrity and considering the present national boundaries as indivisible today is like being governed by a cabinet legitimised some seventy years ago, regardless of any amount of oppression, violence, torture, killings and injustice done by the cabinet to its people.

So it is a high time that people, states and intergovernmental organisations, all over the world, recognise this very fundamental right of secession. “No people and no part of a people shall be held against its will in a political association that it does not want,” declared Ludwig von Mises, one of the most notable economists and social philosophers of the twentieth century, in ‘Nation, State and Economy’. Regardless of excuses one can make, not to believe in the right to secession of people is not to believe in democracy at all.

Dr. C. K. Raut holds a PhD from Cambridge University and is the author of ‘A History of Madhesh.CK Raout.com