September 16, 2019

Determining the Legitimacy of Secession Movements

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General Assembly: Special Political Committee

Topic: Determining the Legitimacy of Secession Movements

Secession, the act of one group attempting to split from a larger pre-existing state is a common theme throughout history, usually the desperate bid of one group to improve their condition and have a form of true self-determination. It is often accompanied by political strife, warfare, and other such struggles in even the best of cases, those in which the secessionist movement receives recognition from the international community and the state from which it split originally. That, however, is not exactly commonplace. There are currently more than 60 active secessionist movements throughout the world on almost every continent, from Somaliland to South Ossetia, all with varying degrees of recognition and legitimacy. This can have dire consequences for the civilians living in these areas, often caught up in military conflicts, poverty, disease, famine, and other such issues as states with different levels of capacity vie for control of a secessionist region.

One of the very first principles to be found in the United Nations charter is that of self-determination. This has been interpreted largely to mean the right of a people to self-determination within the internal workings of a state, not necessarily the right of a people to a state of their own. However, challenges arise when a people are not given equal rights, and representation, or are otherwise treated unfairly within the structure of a state. This problem is loosely addressed within the Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States which states that violation of the territorial integrity of states conducting themselves in compliance with international principles on equal rights and self-determination is not authorized. This gives a very loose sense of legitimacy to movements that are born from non-compliance to those principles. However, this is hardly a sound legal basis for secession movements and circumstances are almost never that simple. As a result, the problem of a secessionist movement’s legitimacy often boils down to which states a secession movement can receive recognition from, creating problems for all involved parties and international peace as a whole. Though the topic has been frequently debated, further guidelines about the legality and legitimacy of secession have yet to be created and remain vague.

This poses the question, what exactly gives legitimacy to a secessionist cause if any legitimacy is to be given at all? It is very important to view this question from all perspectives. Though a state’s territorial integrity is of high importance, it is also of high importance to consider the plights of a people, and how that could lend legitimacy to the idea of them having their own form of external self-determination.

Useful Links:

Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation Among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations:

The Right of Peoples and Nations to Self-Determination:

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