March 19, 1998
One of the most daunting tasks facing political scientists and students of international relations today is the effort to develop clearly defined parameters of when a group of people has the right to self-determination. With the global rise of ethnic and nationalist conflict precipitated by the fall of the Soviet Union and the resultant end of the bipolar international system, groups such as the Kurds in the Middle East are staking claims to sovereignty and self-rule. These clams for greater self-government, whether they be for autonomy, consociasionalism, or total sovereignty, are challenging an international system that must determine how to acknowledge the individual rights and freedoms of the world?s people, while at the same time maintaining some semblance of order and stability. In the essay that follows, I intend to examine the concept of secession in the hopes of coming to a better understanding of when and what kind of self-determination a people such as the Kurds should or should not be able to exercise.
Before beginning a discussion of why and to what extent a gruop may secede, it is vital that I offer a few definitions of some of the terms mentioned in the previous paragraph. Secession is the process of formal withdrawl from an alliance, federation, or political association (Lapidoth p168). When a group secedes from a nation they are asserting their independence or striving to exercise sovereign control over their own political, economic, and cultural affairs. The end result of secession is sovereignty over, or complete control within, the borders of an internationally recognized state. Sovereignty has both an internal dimension (absolute control of internal affairs, jurisdiction over its citizens, and the ability to make and exercise foreign policy programs) and an external dimension (recongnized internationally to be independent from the control of outside infuences) (Lapidoth p169). Beyond developing a definition of sovereignty (and by extension the process of secession whereby it is obtained), we can also describe several different circumstances of who may hold sovereignty. Sovereignty can lie in the absolute power of one individual such as a monarchical ruler. Sovereignty, as conceived of by John Austin, can lie in a nation?s parliament, or as according to the French Constitution of 1791, it can be placed in the nation itself. Popular sovereignty, as denoted by the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, vests its power in the people, and is put into practice i the US with the dual authority of the Union and individual states (Lapidoth p170).
While one possible outcome of a group?s designs on self-determination is total sovereignty, autonomy is another method whereby a group can gain a greater degree of control over its own affairs. According to Lapidoth, autonomy is about the dividion of pwer between the existant central authority and the group wishing to exert greater control (p 178). Autonomy is a ocmpromise; an agreement that most commonly allows the newly autonomous region or people to exert a larger measure of control over its own cultural, economic, and social affairs, while vesting the pwer to control freign relations and external security in the central state (p160). An agreement involving the creation of an automomous region must clearly define who has what specific powers, as well as which pwers will be held jointly. This type of agreement is best established by a constitution or statute (p160). Although autonomy is most often thought of within the context of a specific territory or region, Lapidoth also describes the phenomenon of cultural autonomy. Cultural autonomy consists of a particular ethnic, linguistic, cultural or religious minority widely dispersed among a dominant majoriy population. For example, some European rulers in the past allowed Jews to live their own lives according to their own rules and traditions.
Autonomy may come in many diverse forms, one of which I will outline is termed consociationalism or power sharing. Consociasionalsim most commonly involves three characterists, the first of which is a jointly exercised share of government power. A sort of “Grand Coalition Cabinet” is often formed in which representatives from the autonomous group and central government work out issues of common concern (Lapidoth p186). The second characteristic of a power sharing agreement consists of either cultural of territorial autonomy for the minority group, while the third stipulation involves the proportionality, or equity in political representation, leadership appointments, and the use of public funds (Lapidoth p187). Switzerland, with its twenty cantons and six half-cantons, seems to offer the best example of power sharing.
An agreement involving autonomy is ideally a flexible one, but it is by no means the perfect solution to the complicated affairs of nations. Because of iis nature as a compromise between parties wit their own personal agendas, autonomy has come to be seen as “…often reluctantly offered and ungratefully received (Lapdoth p187).”
Now that I have outlined a brief definition of secession, sovereignty, and autonomy, he difficult task of determining when a people can secede can be more competently addressed. As mentioned earlier, the last six years since the collapse of the Soviet Union has seen growing attempts by ethnic groups to assert their independence. Regions of former direct Soviet influence and affiliation are testing the resolve of nations to maintain the international status quo, while areas of the world that have become of less strategic importance in the competition for global hegemony have followed suit. These growing secession crisis, because they effect the interests and security of neighboring and non-neighboring states alike, are of international consequence and thus require an international response (Buchanan A p2). In an international arena that remains largely anarchical, supranational organizations such as the United Nations face th edilema of ensuring the individuals rights of humanity, while ensuring their own sovereignty as states.
When it comes to secession, international law is hazy at best. The UN claims to supprt the attempts by minority and communal groups to gain independence, bu trestricts the right of secession to anti-colonial movements (Buchanan p ). Most authors and students of political science and international relations such as Ruth Lapidoth and Allen Buchanan, believe that the absolute right of self-determinatin must be rejected because it would destroy the international system and not resolve the instances of ethnic conflict that abound today (Lapidoth p186). This realist perspective acknowledges the assertion that secession would threaten the international security order that is based on the sovereignty of existing borders and would lead to groups seeking self-rule within other groups seeking self-rule. In a way, an international system that recognized the wholesale right of a collection of people to declare independence would be like the hollow “Webble-Wobble” toys we enjoyed as children; each doll contains another doll within it waiting to burst forth.