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Secessionist Conflict: A Happy Marriage between Norms and Interests?

  • Rafael Biermann

As part of a roundtable on “Balancing Legal Norms, Moral Values, and National Interests,” this essay argues that the policy field of secessionist conflict is structured around a set of five rival norms. The norms of territorial integrity and self-determination form the core of this structure, while the norms of noninterference in internal affairs, human and minority rights, and democracy and good governance each come into play depending on the specific scenario. This configuration permits the parties involved in a secessionist conflict to select from a menu of norms the ones that best suit their interests. Norm selection—a concept that I introduce here—displays remarkable regularities, indicating default positions for each type of actor: home states, secessionist groups, entrapped minorities, patrons, and the broader international community. However, significant outlier cases signal that interests do not simply trump norms but that actors accord different values to those norms over time. This attribution is influenced by the dynamics of a normative environment in which norms rise and fall. In particular since the end of the Cold War, discourse as well as state practice has shifted away from the traditional taboo on secession toward more revisionist concepts, such as remedial secession or earned sovereignty, providing an opening for the secessionist wave that started with the breakup of the Soviet Union and of Yugoslavia.

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I would like to thank Christopher Brucker for valuable feedback on this paper.

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1 See Bradley, Megan, “Unresolved and Unresolvable? Tensions in the Refugee Regime,” Ethics & International Affairs 33, no. 1 (2019), pp. 4556.

2 Such as Hugo Slim's contribution to this roundtable on the International Committee of the Red Cross. See Slim, Hugo, “Humanitarian Diplomacy: The ICRC's Neutral and Impartial Advocacy in Armed Conflicts,” Ethics & International Affairs 33, no. 1 (2019), pp. 6777.

3 See Oeter, Stefan, “Conflicting Norms, Values, and Interests: A Perspective from Legal Academia,” Ethics & International Affairs 33, no. 1 (2019), pp. 5766.

4 Bucher, Bernd, “Acting Abstractions: Metaphors, Narrative Structures, and the Eclipse of Agency,” European Journal of International Relations 20, no. 3 (2014), pp. 742–65.

5 For a summary of the workshop, see Biermann, Rafael, Brucker, Christopher, and Schatz, Thea-Marie, “Legal Norms, Moral Values and National Interests,” Ein Tagungsbericht zum Expertenworkshop vom 19. bis zum 21. Februar 2018 in Berlin, Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik 11, no. 2 (2018), pp. 225–30.

6 Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research, “Conflict Barometer 2017,” Heidelberg 2018, p. 16,

7 Coggins, Bridget, “Friends in High Places: International Politics and the Emergence of States from Secessionism,” International Organization 65, no. 3 (2011), pp, 433–67. It should be noted, though, that the dataset of Coggins includes decolonization.

8 Griffiths, Ryan, “Secession and the invisible hand of the international system,” Review of International Studies 40 (2014), pp. 559–81.

9 Biermann, Rafael, “Coercive Europeanization: The EU's Struggle to Contain Secessionism in the Balkans,” European Security 23, no. 4 (2014), pp. 484508.

10 This taxonomy is inspired by Griffiths, Ryan D., “Admission to the Sovereignty Club: The Past, Present, and Future of the International Recognition Regime,” Territory, Politics, Governance 5, no. 2 (2017), p. 181 (on sovereignty and liberal norms); and Anstis, Sebastian C. St. J. and Zacher, Mark W., “The Normative Bases of the Global Territorial Order,” Diplomacy & Statecraft 21, no. 2 (2010), pp. 306–23 (on status-quo and revisionist principles).

11 In Europe, the territorial integrity norm and the inviolability of borders were more extensively enshrined in Articles III and IV of the Declaration on Principles within the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe Final Act of 1975.

12 Atzili, Boaz, Good Fences, Bad Neighbors: Border Fixity and International Conflict (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), p. 1.

13 Randelzhofer, Albrecht, “Article 2(4),” in Simma, Bruno et al. , eds., The Charter of the United Nations: A Commentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, 2nd ed.), p. 123.

14 For example, the Ukrainian constitution of 1996 stipulates in Article 2 that “The sovereignty of Ukraine extends throughout its entire territory. Ukraine is a unitary state. The territory of Ukraine within its present border is indivisible and inviolable.” Article 17 adds, “To protect the sovereignty and territorial indivisibility of Ukraine, and to ensure its economic and informational security are the most important functions of the State and a matter of concern for all the Ukrainian people. The defense of Ukraine and the protection of its sovereignty, territorial indivisibility and inviolability, are entrusted to the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”

15 Oeter, Stefan, “Self-Determination,” in Simma, Bruno et al. , eds., The Charter of the United Nations: A Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, 3rd ed.), pp. 323–26, 331.

16 Quoted in Murswiek, Dietrich, “The Issue of a Right of Secession – Reconsidered,” in Tomuschat, Christian, ed., Modern Law of Self-Determination (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1993), p. 24.

17 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 1, para. 1.

18 Oeter, “Self-Determination,” p. 322.

19 Principle VIII of the Declaration of Principles within the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe Final Act of 1975.

20 Christian Tomuschat, “Self-Determination in a Post-Colonial World,” in Tomuschat, Modern Law of Self-Determination, p. 11.

21 Murswiek, “The Issue of a Right of Secession,” p. 36.

22 Oeter, “Self-Determination,” p. 332.

23 UN General Assembly Res. 2625 (XXV), “Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations,” October 24, 1970, A/RES/25/2625,

24 Nolte, Georg, Article 2(7), in Simma, Bruno et al. , eds., The Charter of the United Nations: A Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995, 1st ed.), p. 171.

25 Report of the Secretary-General on the Work of the Organization, September 13, 1991, UN General Assembly, 46th Session, Supplement No. 1 (A/46/1).

26 UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, “An Agenda for Peace,” June 17, 1992, A/47/277.

27 International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, “The Responsibility to Protect” (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2001), p. XI. (Emphasis my own).

28 Buchheit, Lee C., Secession: The Legitimacy of Self-Determination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), p. 222.

29 Tomuschat, “Self-Determination in a Post-Colonial World,” p. 9; and Murswiek, “The Issue of a Right of Secession,” pp. 27, 35–39.

30 For example, Williams, Paul R. and Pecci, Francesca Jannotti, “Earned Sovereignty: Bridging the Gap between Sovereignty and Self-Determination,” Stanford Journal of International Law 40, no. 2 (2012), pp. 347–86.

31 Qvortrup, Matt, “The History of Ethno-National Referendums 1791–2011,” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 18, no. 1 (2012), pp. 129–50.

* I would like to thank Christopher Brucker for valuable feedback on this paper.

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