The first rush of post-Cold War secessions may be over, but conflicts within states-often triggered by ethnic or cultural differences-will continue to proliferate. Ethnic conflict has replaced the Cold War as the primary interest of political and military theorists, and even conflicts that may be primarily political or economic in nature are frequently given an ethnic cast. Such conflicts pose substantial threats to international peace and human life, and the United States, other governments, and international organizations are increasingly being called upon to influence, intervene in, or broker solutions to them.

Ethnic wars of secession highlight the inherent tension between "self-determination" and "sovereignty" or "territorial integrity." One problem in developing coherent responses to such conflicts has been the vagueness of these terms. In the context of decolonization, self-determination meant immediate independence, but there has been continuing disagreement over its applicability to noncolonial situations. Lip service is also routinely paid to the principle of territorial integrity, but the shattering of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Ethiopia within the past decade is a precedent not lost on many "nations" that would be states.

Neither sovereignty nor self-determination is an absolute right. Each is limited by other rights and international obligations. Sovereignty is limited not only by the rights of other states and the innumerable political and economic ties that bind them, but also by a legitimate international interest in human rights, the environment, and other issues formerly considered the sole jurisdiction of the state. Outside of the classic context of European decolonization, the free exercise of self-determination has been constrained historically by great-power rivalry, questions about the potential economic and political viability of new states, and the overarching goal of maintaining order and stability by preserving existing territorial arrangements wherever possible.

Despite continued claims to a "right" of secession by groups in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the former Soviet Union, no such right has yet been recognized by the international community. International law does not prohibit secession, whether voluntary or violent, but it has neither recognized a right to secede nor identified even tentatively the conditions that might give rise to such a right in the future.

Military force can establish control over a particular territory, but it cannot create international legitimacy. For example, Turkish forces have controlled the northern part of Cyprus for much longer than a unified Cypriot state has existed, yet no state-with the exception of self-interested Turkey-recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus as independent. Similarly, most countries reject Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, Morocco's claims to the Western Sahara, and Indonesia's purported incorporation of East Timor.


If the international community feels compelled to insert itself into the extraordinarily difficult process through which people accept or reject national identity, it must agree on criteria for intervention that go beyond a simple political preference for one side or the other. Leaving aside for the moment the issue of purely humanitarian intervention-which should have nothing to do with competing claims over identity or territory-the only legitimate goal consistent with the present international order is ensuring that separation or unity occurs without disturbing international peace. In any other situation, military intervention in civil wars remains an unjustifiable and unwise interference in a state's domestic affairs.

But if territorial claims cannot justify foreign intervention, should claims to self-determination be totally ignored? Such silence would be politically impossible and, in some cases, morally objectionable. We are left, then, with the task of defining the appropriate degree of foreign interest in the face of an almost infinite variety of demands for self-determination.

Two historically consistent and morally justifiable purposes can be served by contemporary self-determination and are therefore deserving of international support: protecting individual and group identity and facilitating effective participation in government. The former purpose is today reflected largely by the human rights norms that have developed since 1945. The latter, sometimes referred to by Woodrow Wilson and others as "internal" self-determination, implies finding appropriate levels of democratic self-government to guarantee effective participation by all in the economic and political life of the country.

These purposes may often be realized within less-than-independent political entities. Strong national cultures can continue to survive even without their own states, such as the Catalans, Scots, Welsh, Indian Tamils, Quebecois, Tibetans, and many indigenous peoples-so long as the human rights of their members are protected.

This last point is reflected in the relatively recent development of minimum norms designed to protect the rights of both majorities and minorities. The United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and many individual states are increasingly willing to criticize efforts by central governments to ignore regional or ethnic differences and denounce substate self-determination movements as merely "terrorists" or "rebels." Indeed, diplomats and nongovernmental organizations frequently urge states with ethnically diverse populations to adopt more flexible constitutional arrangements in order to accommodate desires for local self-government and cultural protection and to decrease the likelihood of violent conflict.

This new interest in internal constitutional arrangements raises difficult questions about which issues fall within a state's domestic jurisdiction and which are the legitimate concern of the international community. At the same time, however, the need to translate international norms into domestic reality highlights the essential role of democracy and the rule of law in protecting minority rights, as well as their more traditional role of safeguarding individual liberties.

Those who claim to speak on behalf of their nation should be able to demonstrate their mandate through free and fair elections or referendums. This requires a political system open enough to allow such representatives to emerge, but it also requires that would-be "ethnic entrepreneurs" demonstrate that they do in fact speak for the people they claim to represent. Merely creating a "national liberation movement" is insufficient evidence that there exists a widespread desire for secession or other major constitutional change within a state-although it may be the only option if repression prohibits the free expression of minority views.

Self-determination should be concerned primarily with people, not territory. It should not be used to defend abstract notions of sovereignty, to buttress fictitious claims of national destiny, or to resolve centuries-old territorial disputes. Nearly every state in the world was founded directly or indirectly on conquest. "Self-determination" cannot provide a meaningful standard against which to overturn acts that were considered legitimate and lawful at the time they were committed. (One might note that those who claim a right to independence based on historical arguments tend to choose the historical period that would give them the greatest amount of territory-that is, the period in which they themselves were successful conquerors.)


The international community in general and the United States in particular will continue to be called upon to take sides in internal ethnic conflicts purportedly based on demands for self-determination. Guidelines for decision-making must be clearly articulated so that responses can be based on more than perceived short-term advantage and defended against charges of selectivity and hypocrisy.

When responding to claims of self-determination, protecting basic human rights should be policymakers' foremost goal. Human rights norms are widely accepted and give legitimacy to U.S. and U.N. actions. Not only are such ideals broadly supported and understood by the American public, but U.S. law requires them to be a primary concern of U.S. foreign policy. Thus, a basic factor in formulating responses to self-determination claims should be whether or not a particular action is likely to promote the rights of all of the people concerned. Cultural, linguistic, and religious rights must be respected, and neither minority nor majority should seek to impose its values on the other. In many instances, this will require only the guarantee of what some term "individual" rights to free expression, assembly, association, and religion. In other cases, innovative solutions-affirmative action, government representation, devolution of powers, or support for cultural activities-will be needed to make equality in fact match equality in law.

At the same time, however, it is important to reject the notions that every ethnically or culturally distinct people, nation, or group has an automatic right to its own state or that ethnically homogeneous states are inherently desirable. Even in an environment where human rights are respected, a global system of states based primarily on ethnicity or historical claims is clearly unachievable. Except in the smallest or most isolated environments, there will always be "trapped" minorities, no matter how carefully boundaries are drawn. Ethnically based states almost inevitably lead to claims of ethnic superiority on the part of the new majority and to a cultural rigidity that creates problems for new minorities. At their worst, newly created ethnic states may tolerate or encourage the killings and ethnic cleansing that scarred the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia.

This does not mean that the majority in a new state need ignore its own culture or the requirements of a modern state. Some "state-building" (for example, with respect to language or a common legal system) may be necessary to develop the administrative and economic ties that bind communities together. Thus cultural or ethnic minorities in a particular territory must accept that status and not expect their beliefs and customs to be reflected at the national level to the same extent as those of the majority population. This does not mean, however, that a minority need submit to a majority that seeks not merely to mandate conformity to statewide standards but rather to destroy cultures that deviate from the dominant model.

In general, policymakers should continue to reject the notion that there is a legal right of secession. This principle will properly force nationalists to abandon their claim that "we are a nation and therefore have a right to a state." On the other hand, central governments should no longer be allowed to hide behind the facade of national unity without explaining how minority rights are genuinely being protected.

There are two instances in which secession should be supported by the international community. The first occurs when massive, discriminatory human rights violations, approaching the scale of genocide, are being perpetrated. If there is no likelihood of a change in the attitude of the central government, or if the majority population supports the repression, secession may be the only effective remedy for the besieged group. Although support for secession raises serious issues regarding possible outside intervention, it is justifiable if the underlying abuses are sufficiently grave. Such circumstances will probably be uncommon, although the atrocities against, for example, Tibetans in China or Kurds in Iraq might qualify. It is important to remember, however, that such exceptions are based primarily on the need to alleviate human suffering, not on acceptance of the impossible equation of one nation to one state.

A second possible exception might find a right of secession if reasonable demands for local self-government or minority rights have been arbitrarily rejected by a central government-even without accompanying large-scale violence. This exception, however, would come into play only when minimal demands are rejected; it does not mean that the United States or the United Nations should substitute its judgment of what is fair or politically reasonable for that of the parties involved. The 1992 U.N. General Assembly declaration on minority rights only calls on states to "protect the existence" of minorities, granting the latter the right "to participate effectively in cultural, religious, social, economic and public life." It neither mandates the scope of that participation nor grants minorities a veto over all actions that might affect them.


The United States and others should generally encourage resolution of self-determination claims by means short of secession, except when the parties agree to the division of a state. Statehood is not necessary to guarantee the legitimate human rights of groups and individuals to protect and promote their culture, language, and traditions. The fulfillment of other goals, such as increased political and economic power, is more legitimately sought through the normal democratic process. At the same time, however, the United States should recognize that minimum human rights and minority rights standards are expanding beyond the purely individualistic focus of America's own traditions, incorporating the areas of language, culture, and education. Potential mediators and advisers will need to become familiar with comparative arrangements for power-sharing, devolution, federalism, confederation, territorial and functional autonomy, self-government, special participation rights for minorities or regional groups, proportional representation, and similar arrangements.

To ensure equity, minorities in a new state founded to preserve ethnic or cultural homogeneity should be granted the same rights of self-determination that were asserted by the seceding population. Legitimate self-determination can only be exercised on the basis of the consent of all involved parties, not just those who wish to separate. If neither international law nor politics offers a mechanism through which minorities trapped within a new ethnic state may rejoin their former state or, at least, create an autonomous region within their new home, rejection of the new borders by force may be seen as the only alternative.

Put simply, redressing historical grievances or responding to contemporary dissatisfactions cannot justify the dispossession of members of ethnic minorities who now live in the territory in question and whose ancestors may have lived there for generations. No group can claim exclusive control over a territory forever. It is morally impossible to decide which individuals should be forced to choose between emigrating or remaining under "alien" domination and which other groups should be rewarded with ethnically based political power in the form of a new state.

If our concern is with peoples rather than territories, there is no reason to regard existing administrative or "republic" boundaries within states as sacrosanct. In most cases, the best way of determining the wishes of those within a new state would be through a series of plebiscites to redraw what were formerly internal boundaries. Such plebiscites could be subject to various limitations to ensure that they would not be used in haste or to create enclaves that are not viable. Accepting the possibility of altering borders peacefully might be a useful precondition for recognition of a new state whenever a significant proportion of the population appears not to support the new borders.

Finally, when armed conflict occurs, responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity must be distinguished from the underlying political agendas of all sides. The United States and others should continue to support international accountability for such criminals, even if the problems of such prosecutions are only too evident from the halting work of the U.N. tribunals on Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Nonetheless, prosecution of war criminals should not be linked to the merits of self-determination claims. A principled response to self-determination claims asserted prior to the outbreak of armed conflict cannot depend on whether war crimes are committed after the conflict begins.

The approach outlined above will not necessarily deter highly motivated groups or power-hungry individuals from seeking independence, whether for honest motives or ulterior ones. But the present lack of both normative and moral clarity may be responsible for at least some of the increased separatist violence of the post-Cold War years. Emboldened by the international community's acceptance of the dissolution of Yugoslavia (and not attuned to the fine distinctions drawn by European diplomats and lawyers between "dissolution" and "secession"), dissatisfied groups in all parts of the world have decided that wars of national liberation are more likely to obtain meaningful outside support than lower-keyed appeals for minority rights or autonomy.

A more clearly formulated set of international norms, such as those suggested here, may discourage at least some questionable claims and the ready resort to violence that often accompanies them. Such an approach will not satisfy partisans who extol either the virtues of yesterday's "national" identity or the needs of today's modern state. Even so, recognizing and accommodating conflicting rights is the only way in which the world can respond to diametrically opposed demands in a politically and morally principled manner.

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  • Hurst Hannum is Professor of International Law at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the author of Autonomy, Sovereignty, and Self-Determination: The Accommodation of Conflicting Rights.
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