A political philosophical account of secession
: On the right and principles of secession

  • Chia-Hung Huang

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


I propose a political philosophical account of justified secession in order to tackle the thorny conceptual issue of what a right of secession amounts to, given that the state normally forbids or restricts secession by appeal to its legitimate jurisdiction, whereas secessionists and minorities advocate a primary interest in self-determination and ask for more permissive conditions on secession. The following core claim threads through my dissertation: even though (1) the current boundaries of (state) territory are a result of historical contingency, and (2) qualified claimants to secession are entitled to the same moral standing as the host states in securing their territorial interests, (3) both agents (i.e. secessionists and states) should limit their rights to propose or prohibit secession, because their rights to territories are justified provisionally and conditionally. The first proposition reveals a certain understanding of the modern state system, according to which we should recognise its contingent, arbitrary composition (i.e. where the boundaries are drawn and what particular group is subject to what state) and unjust genesis as a significant difficulty that the extant states as rulers ought to at least attempt to overcome. That is to say, states are obliged to mitigate the impact of their own unjust genesis and to convince their subjects to accept the arbitrary composition (i.e. the fact that they happen to be subject to a particular state) in order to justify their rights to particular territories (i.e. territorial rights). By ‘convince’, I mean that the state should ameliorate the arbitrariness with moral values in order to help its subjects tolerate that problematic feature. As suggested by Margaret Moore and Anna Stilz, on whose work I draw, these values are basic justice, rights of occupancy and collective self-determination.
The same historical contingency also shapes people’s rights to collective self-determination. First, if the composition of state is a matter of historical contingency, then who becomes the advantaged group(s) dominating a particular state or what group may claim secession is likewise affected by that same contingency. Second, while a dominant group in a state often prioritises their corporate (territorial) interests with respect to those of other subgroups, the right to territorial integrity or the state’s moral standing in terms of non-interference in domestic affairs usually exacerbates partiality or bias in favour of the dominant group. In such a scenario, the collective self-determination of the state reduces, wrongfully, to the self-determination of the ruling group. However, thirdly, this implies another account of territorial rights or state territory: that is, the state derives its territorial rights by securing the collective self-determination of all self-determining peoples within its territory. By self-determining people, according to Moore, we refer to a certain kind of territorially concentrated sub-state group, able to form a government, and holding a shared political (group) identity and history of cooperation. Provided that the state’s rights to territory is constituted by the territorial rights of its self-determining peoples, the state should be conceived as an entity in which several proto-states/self-determining peoples are potentially embedded. As a result, we should deem such a subgroup to be a qualified claimant to secession and so the group is entitled to the moral standing (same as the host state) in protecting their territorial interests. Connecting to the foregoing, statist account, I shall propose my dualistic account of territorial rights, accommodating and recognising the territorial interests of self-determining people.
The achievement of a state in securing basic justice, rights of occupancy and collective self-determination, or the identification of qualified claimant to secession, does not constitute the whole picture of the right to secede. I shall further argue that my dualistic account of territorial rights is justified if and only if the rights-holders (namely the state and self-determining people) are also committed to the establishment of a global political authority. This reflects the Kantian idea of permissive laws that, firstly, states’ territorial rights over particular populations and territories should be taken as unilateral acquisitions and settlement from the viewpoint of outsiders, so that there is a case for a just global authority to be erected to address such unilateralism. However, secondly, before such an authority is erected, we should still grant unilateral jurisdiction over territory, provided that such recognition is necessary to bring about that global authority or rightful conditions around the world. Besides, the new account of territorial rights can entail principles for justified secession, which articulate the circumstances in which a claim to consensual or unilateral secession is morally justified. It will be shown that the normative basis of justified secession, in addition to grave injustice, refers also to persistent alienation, while different degrees of that wrong make legitimate consensual or unilateral secession. Based upon these analyses, I propose that the right of secession, as a group right, should be redefined as the right of a subgroup to have an equal moral/legal standing when re-negotiating terms and conditions (for the protection of territorial rights) with the host state or any relevant agent. It thus consists in the remedial right to claim secession, the primary right to constitutional reform, and the primary right to erect a just global authority jointly with the extant, recognised states. A subgroup, however, can only propose unilateral secession as the remedy for grave injustice or serious violation of collective autonomy; it should also be endowed with the preceding primary rights for better protecting the territorial rights or group autonomy of its members.
Date of Award24 Mar 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorChristopher D I Bertram (Supervisor)

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