Methods of Prevention of Secession in International Law: The Problem of Internal Self-Determination

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General information

In 2008 Kosovo declared independence, which was recognised by the majority of the UN Members (52%), in 2014 Crimeans orchestrated an independence referendum and soon after were incorporated into the Russian Federation, in 2017 Catalonia conducted an independence referendum and promulgated independence. Furthermore, a number of secessionist claims exacerbated in Europe and around the globe (Gagauzia, Scotland, Kashmir, Kurdistan) which are likely to re-seek statehood in the near future. Against that background, two paramount questions have arisen: whether international law provides an entitlement to statehood; and if so, what are the conditions and, on the other hand, whether international law disposes of instruments which can prevent secession and what they are.

The first question has been relatively well addressed by the doctrine: self-determination could lead to the territorial disruption of existing states only in extreme instances of oppression or colonisation. On the contrary, the second question apart from situations such as the prohibition on the use of force or the prohibition on racial discrimination remains quite undetermined. In particular, it is not clear whether secession may be prevented if the local population is offered sufficient safeguards to pursue its political, social and cultural development.

The project’s objectives

The project aims to answer the question to what extent the implementation of the internal right to self-determination can be interpreted as a norm of international law that prevents secession.

In other words, the project will provide information on what the state is (internationally) obliged to do towards an ethnic group/national minority in order to guarantee internal self-determination and thus prevent territorial disintegration. The project will also take into account the opinion of the local population (through interviews) in selected pro-independence and ethnically diverse regions as well as analyse potential obstacles to the universal application of the suggested norm (ethno-historical narratives, economic situation, etc.).

Basic research

The implementation of the grant entitled “Methods of preventing secession in international law: the problem of internal self-determination” (UMO-2020/37/K/HS5/02762), carried out by a scientist coming from abroad as part of the Norwegian Financial Mechanism 2014-2021 in the POLS program commenced on the 1st of June 2021 at the Institute of Law Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

The principal investigator of the grant is Dr Sava Janković.

In testing the main hypothesis, Dr Jankovic’s project refers to the practice of states and international organizations as well as considers the judicial practice of both national and international courts and tribunals. The project also aims to thoroughly examine the content of the self-determination norm and tries to work out a threshold that would allow/disallow secession.

The importance of research for the creation and application of law

Research conducted by Dr. Sava Jankovic as part of the POLS grant deserves attention, because if international law established a governance standard that would meet the requirements of legitimacy and the needs of the local population on the one hand, and prevent secession on the other, then it would be a win-win situation, strengthening peace and stability in the world.

Update for the project NCN Nr 2020/37/K/HS5/02762

At the beginning of 2023, work of Dr. Sava Janković’s on project Methods of Prevention of Secession in International Law: The Problem of Internal Self-Determination No. 2020/37/K/HS5/02762, financed by the National Science Center and the Norwegian Financial Mechanism, was at an advanced stage.

Dr. Janković completed the writing of three main chapters of the monograph on, respectively: general issues of the right of people to self-determination, including the internal aspect (Chapter II), the theoretical approach to the “right” to secession in international law (Chapter III) and the issue of potential obstacles to the hypothesis of internal self-determination being a mechanism preventing secession (Chapter V). Chapter IV on the practical view of secession issues, covering the opinion of the population of multi-ethnic European regions, is in its final phase.

Fieldwork, i.e. interviews and research questionnaires, has yet to be carried out in Belgium and Germany and is planned for the coming months. Completion of work on the monograph is planned for June/July 2023.

In the meantime, Dr. Jankovic published several articles on internet forums (OpinioJuris) and in scientific journals “Berkeley Journal of International Law” i “Chinese (Taiwan) Yearbook of International Law and Affairs” on the right of nations to self-determination, aviation law, human rights, the concept of statehood and international conflicts.