Democracy and Secession

Democracy is government by those chosen by the governed. In the democratic West democracy is generally accepted as a right; what right would any group have to impose its will on a people if they were not chosen as a government by those people?

This being so, then if a minority group within one nation are in the majority in their own region, doesn't it follow that they should have the right to secede from the nation and form their own independent state with its own government, if that was what they wanted?

What justification could there be for the larger nation to force the smaller group to remain subject to it against the majority will of the people of the smaller group?

In early twenty-first century there seems a general acceptance of the right of nations to forcibly stop secessions but it seems to me that there is no ethical justification for this situation.

This page was created on 2008/08/27 (August 27th 2008), last edited 2020/12/06
Contact: David K. Clarke – ©


What right does a region or province of a nation have to secede from that nation? What right does a national government have to stop that secession? These are points in ethics, and unfortunately ethics carries little weight with governments of nations.

In 1901 six British colonies combined to form the Commonwealth of Australia; the old colonies became states of the Australian nation. The colonies that joined the Commonwealth were New South Wales, Tasmania, South Australia, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia. The people of New Zealand considered joining, but decided to remain independent.

If, in the twenty-first century, one of the Australian states decided to secede, what would happen? I heard one speaker on a radio talk-back program say that he would support going to war to stop the secession. Is this indicative of a wide-spread opinion? Why should a state be forced to remain in the nation if the people of that state chose to go their own way? In 1901 New Zealand had the option of joining the Australian Federation; its people decided not to. Would any Australian today seriously consider going to war to force New Zealand to join the Australian Federation? I think not. Would forcing Western Australia to remain in the Commonwealth of Australia be in any way ethically different to forcing New Zealand to join the Commonwealth?

(This reminds me of the Islamic Sharia law that states something to the effect that while a person should not be forced to become Muslim, but if a Muslim decided to leave Islam he deserved to be put to death.)

I can see several possibly valid, but perhaps not sufficient, reasons for forcefully stopping secession. It could be to the economic advantage of the richer provinces of any nation to secede; they might do better on their own rather than having to help support the poorer provinces. (The Australian state of Western Australia has great mineral wealth, and so long as this lasts might be advantaged by independence from the Commonwealth of Australia. At the time this page was written there was a mining boom in WA.) However, if the richer provinces seceded then the people of the poorer provinces would be disadvantaged. If the wealth was transient, for example petroleum resources, would the people of the break-away region want to rejoin the larger nation after the wealthy period ended?

Another reason that it might be right to disallow secession is when the break-away state might be unviable; for example if West New Guinea was to break away from Indonesia would it be capable of governing itself?

Questions such as these should be settled by some international body on the grounds of what would be the best course for the greatest number of people, it seems to me, rather than being left to the government of the particular nation, which is certainly not a disinterested party. Governments are made up of people and people in power almost always want to maximise their power.

Some of the nations and regions where there have been or are break-away movements and the relevant dates of those movements...

NationBreak-away region or ethnic groupDate
BelgiumFlemish and Walloon ethnic areas2008
China Taiwan1945 onward
ChinaTibet1950s onward
ChinaHong Kong2019
CzechoslovakiaCzech Republic, Slovakia1993
Georgia and Russia Abkhazia and South Ossetia 2008
IndonesiaAceh1995 to 2002?
IndonesiaEast Timor1975 to 2000
IndonesiaWest New Guinea (Irian Jaya)1949 onward
Ireland and BritainNorthern Ireland1920 to around 1995
SerbiaKosovo1996 to 1999
SpainCataloniaAbout 1931 onward
Turkey, Iran, IraqKurdistanOn and off for centuries to the present
USAConfederate States1860 to 1865
USSRRussia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakstan, etc.The union collapsed in 1991
YugoslaviaSurbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Hertzegovina, Macedonia, etc. Broke up in the 1980s


Abkhazia and South Ossetia

After the break-up of the soviet union (USSR) Georgia, at the eastern end of the Black Sea and on the southern flanks of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, became an independent nation. Within Georgia are (or were) three ethnic enclaves: Abkhazia, Ajaria, and South Ossetia. Many of the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are ethnic Russians.

In Abkhazia and South Ossetia there has been considerable unrest and dissatisfaction with rule by the Georgian Government in T'bilisi; there is evidence that Russia may have encouraged this unrest. In August 2008 the Georgian Government sent its army into Abkhazia and South Ossetia to 'restore order'. Russia responded by sending its army in and demolishing the much inferior Georgian army in the two enclaves.

Subsequently Abkhazia and South Ossetia have declared their independence from Georgia, and Russia has officially recognised that independence.

Interestingly the USA has objected strongly both to the Russian invasion of the two enclaves (of course the USA has no moral authority for such an objection following its unjustified invasion of Iraq several years earlier) and to Russia's recognition of the independence of the two enclaves (again, similar to the US supported independence of Kosovo from Serbia - very unpopular with the Russian regime).

On the principal of the people of a region having the right to the government of their choice it seems to me that the peoples of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have the right to independence; although the part that Russia played in the destabilisation makes the issue unclear.

A vote on independence for Taiwan?

In February 2008 Stephen Smith (then Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs) publicly stated that he did not support a Taiwanese referendum on the question of independence from China.

Do a people have the right to decide who governs them or not? Surely anyone who believes that people have a right to decide who governs them would have to answer that they do.

Taiwan has been effectively independent from mainland China since 1949. It has been democratic since about 1988. There are many people in Taiwan who would like to make this independence formal; however China has threatened war if the government of Taiwan ever formalises its independence.

The question is, do the people of Taiwan have the right to keep on electing their own government, or should they accept rule from the current tyrannical, oppressive and undemocratic Chinese government.

What right does the Chinese government have to rule even mainland China? They have not been elected by the Chinese people. They have no ethical right to govern at all, especially in Taiwan.

It is shameful that the Australian Foreign Minister apparently thinks the democratic rights of the Taiwanese people less important that maintaining good trade relations with the despotic and illegitimate government of China.

China and Tibet

Tibet was invaded by Chinese troops around 1950. It had been a part of China at some times in history; so had Vietnam, Thailand and other nations. China claims a 'right' to rule Tibet. I'm sure many Tibetans would prefer to be independent. Why should Tibetans not have the right to independence if that is the desire of the majority?

One complicating factor here is that China has been moving Chinese into Tibet in substantial numbers; if there was a vote on independence the great majority of these would probably vote against independence. What ethical right would they have to vote at all?

Indonesia, West Papua, and East Timor

Indonesian governments and the Indonesian people are very touchy about the possible secession of West Papua.

West Papua became a province of Indonesia following a vote by a group of West Papuan 'representatives'. There has long been controversy about how representative these people were, and how free a vote they had.

Australia gave temporary protection visas to some 46 West Papuan asylum seekers in March 2006. This caused diplomatic repercussions from the Indonesian government. Among the Indonesian people some of the feeling can be gauged by a group of yobbos in Kalimantan going to a local hotel demanding the hand-over of any Australian citizens – fortunately there were none there.

What ethical right do the West Papuans have to secede from Indonesia, and what right does an Indonesian government and the Indonesian people have to stop the West Papuan people from choosing a government to suit themselves?

Would the people of West Papua be capable of self government?

Indonesia and East Timor

The Indonesian occupation of East Timor began in December 1975 and lasted until October 1999. There was no valid justification for the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, yet the Whitlam Government of my country, Australia, to its shame, accepted the take-over. My impression was that the Fretilin party that gained political power in East Timor before the Indonesian invasion was too left-wing for the liking of the Australian government (and main opposition party).

The Indonesian occupation of East Timor was cruel, oppressive and bloodthirsty. There was strong opposition in Indonesia to allowing East Timor its independence and much of East Timor's infrastructure was destroyed by forces opposed to the independence (who were supported by the Indonesian military).

I have written in more detail about the world's betrayal of East Timor elsewhere in these pages.

Also see Wikipedia.


Related sites on the Internet

The ethics of secession, by Scott Boykin, 1998
A quote from Boykin...

"Modern political thought has produced three main types of argument for the state's legitimacy.

  • One, found in Kant, grounds the state's authority on the purported rightness of its institutions and aims. A right of secession challenges this position if it allows a group to legitimately withdraw from a just state.
  • Another, found in Locke, holds that consent, whether explicit or tacit, is the source of the state's authority. A right of secession challenges this-position in maintaining that consent may be legitimately withdrawn in favor of an alternative political arrangement.
  • The third, found in Hume, bases the state's authority on its usefulness in producing order, which facilitates the individual's pursuit of self-chosen ends. A right of secession challenges this position in negating the general Humean duty to support a historical or conventional state and morally permitting a group to transfer its loyalties to one it expects to find more useful."

Secession, from a philosophical point of view, by Allen Buchanan, 2003.