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Secession (derived from the Latin term secessio) is the act of withdrawing from an organization, union, or especially a political entity. Threats of secession also can be a strategy for achieving more limited goals.

Secession theory

Mainstream political theory largely ignored theories of secession until the dissolution of the Soviet Unionmarker, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakiamarker in the early 1990s through secession. Theories of secession address a fundamental problem of political philosophy: the legitimacy and moral basis of the state’s authority, be it based on “God’s will,” consent of the people, the morality of goals, or usefulness to obtaining goals.

In his 1991 book Secession: The Morality of Political Divorce From Fort Sumter to Lithuania and Quebec, philosophy professor Allen Buchanan outlined limited rights to secession under certain circumstances, mostly related to oppression by people of other ethnic or racial groups, and especially those previously conquered by other peoples.

In the fall of 1994 the Journal of Libertarian Studies published Robert W. McGee’s article ”Secession Reconsidered.” He writes from a libertarian perspective, but holds that secession is justified only if secessionists can create a viable, if minimal, state on contiguous territory.

In April 1995 the Ludwig Von Mises Institute sponsored a secession conference. Papers from the conference were later published in the book Secession, State and Liberty by David Gordon. Among articles included were: “The Secession Tradition in America” by Donald Livingston; “When is Political Divorce Justified?” by Steven Yates; “The Ethics of Secession” by Scott Boykin; “Nations by Consent: Decomposing the Nation-State” by Murray Rothbard; “Yankee Confederates: New England Secession Movements Prior to the War Between the States” by Thomas DiLorenzo; “Was the Union Army's Invasion of the Confederate States a Lawful Act?" by James Ostrowski.

In July 1998 the Rutgers Universitymarker journal “Society” published papers from a “Symposium on Secession and Nationalism at the Millennium” including the articles “The Western State as Paradigm” by Hans-Herman Hoppe, “Profit Motives in Secession” by Sabrina P. Ramet, “Rights of Secession” by Daniel Kofman, “The Very Idea of Secession” by Donald Livingston and “Secession, Autonomy, & Modernity” by Edward A. Tiryakian. In 2007 the University of South Carolinamarker sponsored a conference called “Secession As an International Phenomenon” which produced a number of papers on the topic.

Justifications for secession

Some theories of secession emphasize a general right of secession for any reason (“Choice Theory") while others emphasize that secession should be considered only to rectify grave injustices (“Just Cause Theory”). Some theories do both. A list of justifications may be presented supporting the right to secede, as described by Allen Buchanan, Robert McGee, Anthony Birch, Walter Williams, Jane Jacobs, Frances Kendall and Leon Louw, Leopold Kohr, Kirkpatrick Sale, and various authors in David Gordon’s “Secession, State and Liberty,” includes:
  • The right to liberty, free association and private property
  • Consent as important democratic principle; will of majority to secede should be recognized
  • Making it easier for states to join with others in an experimental union
  • Dissolving such union when goals for which it was constituted are not achieved
  • Self-defense when larger group presents lethal threat to minority or the government cannot adequately defend an area
  • Self-determination of peoples
  • Preserving culture, language, etc. from assimilation or destruction by a larger or more powerful group
  • Furthering diversity by allowing diverse cultures to keep their identity
  • Rectifying past injustices, especially past conquest by a larger power
  • Escaping “discriminatory redistribution,” i.e., tax schemes, regulatory policies, economic programs, etc. that distribute resources away to another area, especially in an undemocratic fashion
  • Enhanced efficiency when the state or empire becomes too large to administer efficiently
  • Preserving “liberal purity” (or “conservative purity”) by allowing less (or more) liberal regions to secede
  • Providing superior constitutional systems which allow flexibility of secession
  • Keeping political entities small and human scale through right to secession

Aleksandar Pavkovic, associate professor at the Department of Politics and International Studies at Macquarie Universitymarker in Australia and the author of several books on secession describes five justifications for a general right of secession within liberal political theory:
  • Anarcho-Capitalism: individual liberty to form political associations and private property rights together justify right to secede and to create a “viable political order” with like-minded individuals.
  • Democratic Secessionism: the right of secession, as a variant of the right of self-determination, is vested in a “territorial community” which wishes to secede from “their existing political community”; the group wishing to secede then proceeds to delimit “its” territory by the majority.
  • Communitarian Secessionism: any group with a particular “participation-enhancing” identity, concentrated in a particular territory, which desires to improve its members’ political participation has a prima facie right to secede.
  • Cultural Secessionism: any group which was previously in a minority has a right to protect and develop its own culture and distinct national identity though seceding into an independent state.
  • The Secessionism of Threatened Cultures: if a minority culture is threatened within a state that has a majority culture, the minority needs a right to form a state of its own which would protect its culture.

Types of secession

Secession theorists have described a number of ways in which a political entity (city, county, canton, state) can secede from the larger or original state:
  • Secession from federation or confederation (political entities with substantial reserved powers which have agreed to join together) versus secession from a unitary state (a state governed as a single unit with few powers reserved to sub-units)
  • National (seceding entirely from the national state) versus local (seceding from one entity of the national state into another entity of the same state)
  • Central or enclave (seceding entity is completely surrounded by the original state) versus peripheral (along a border of the original state)
  • Secession by contiguous units versus secession by non-contiguous units (exclaves)
  • Separation or partition (although an entity secedes, the rest of the state retains its structure) versus dissolution (all political entities dissolve their ties and create several new states)
  • Irredentism where secession is sought in order to annex the territory to another state because of common ethnicity or prior historical links
  • Minority (a minority of the population or territory secedes) versus majority (a majority of the population or territory secedes)
  • Secession of better off regions versus secession of worse off regions
  • The threat of Secession sometimes is used as a strategy to gain greater autonomy within the original state

Arguments against secession

Allen Buchanan, who supports secession under limited circumstances, lists arguments that might be used against secession:
  • “Protecting Legitimate Expectations” of those who now occupy territory claimed by secessionists, even in cases where that land was stolen
  • “Self Defense” if losing part of the state would make it difficult to defend the rest of it
  • “Protecting Majority Rule” and the principle that minorities must abide by them
  • “Minimization of Strategic Bargaining” by making it difficult to secede, such as by imposing an exit tax
  • “Soft Paternalism” because secession will be bad for secessionists or others
  • “Threat of Anarchy” because smaller and smaller entities may choose to secede until there is chaos
  • “Preventing Wrongful Taking” such as the state’s previous investment in infrastructure
  • “Distributive Justice” arguments that wealthier areas cannot secede from poorer ones

Secession movements

Movements that work towards political secession may describe themselves as being autonomy, separatist, independence, self-determination, partition, devolution decentralization, sovereignty, self-governance or decolonization movements instead of, or in addition to, being secession movements.

See more complete lists of historical and active autonomist and secessionist movements.


The Platine War (1853-1854) was triggered by the efforts of Paraguaymarker, Uruguaymarker and Corrientes Province, with the support of the Empire of Brazilmarker, to secede from the Argentine Confederation which sought to recreate the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata.


During the 19th century, the single Britishmarker colony in eastern mainland Australia, New South Walesmarker (NSW) was progressively divided up by the British government as new settlements were formed and spread. Victoriamarker (Vic) in 1851 and Queensland (Qld) in 1859.

However, settlers agitated to divide the colonies throughout the later part of the century; particularly in central Queensland (centred in Rockhamptonmarker) in the 1860s and 1890s, and in North Queensland (with Bowenmarker as a potential colonial capital) in the 1870s. Other secession (or territorial separation) movements arose and these advocated the secession of New England in northern central New South Wales, Deniliquinmarker in the Riverinamarker district also in NSW, and Mount Gambier in the eastern part of South Australiamarker.

Western Australia

Secession movements have surfaced several times in Western Australia (WA), where a 1933 referendum for secession from the Federation of Australia passed with a two-thirds majority. The referendum had to be ratified by the British Parliamentmarker, which declined to act, on the grounds that it would contravene the Australian Constitution.

  • The Principality of Hutt River claims to have seceded from Australia in 1970, although its status is not recognised by Australia or any other country. According to a lexicon on nationalist movements across the world, Macau happened to recognice that Principality.


Austriamarker successfully seceded from Nazi Germany on April 27, 1945. This took place after seven years of Austria being part of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich due to the Anschluss annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in March 1938.

Belgium and The Netherlands

On August 25, 1830, during the reign of William I, the nationalistic opera La muette de Portici was performed in Brusselsmarker. Soon after, the Belgian Revolt occurred, which resulted in the Belgian secession from The Netherlands.


Two southern republican states seceded from Brazil in 1835. Defeated in the War of the Farrapos, they returned in 1845. The slightly earlier cabanagem struggle of Grão-Pará was in part a northern secessionist movement.


Throughout Canada's history, there has been tension between English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians. Under the Constitutional Act of 1791, the Quebec colony (including parts of what is today Quebec, Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador) was divided in two: Lower Canada (which retained French law and institutions) and Upper Canada (a new colony intended to accommodate the many English-speaking settlers, including the United Empire Loyalists). The intent was to provide each group with its own colony. In 1841, the two Canadas were merged into the Province of Canada. The union proved contentious, however, resulting in a legislative deadlock between English and French legislators. The difficulties of the union led to the adoption of a federal system in Canada, and the Canadian Confederation in 1867. The federal framework did not eliminate all tensions, however, leading to the Quebec sovereignty movement in the latter half of the 20th century.

Other occasional secessionist movements have included anti-Confederation movements in 19th century Atlantic Canadamarker (see Anti-Confederation Party), the North-West Rebellion of 1885, and various small separatism movements in Albertamarker particularly (see Alberta separatism) and Western Canada generally (see, for example, Western Canada Concept).

Central America

After the 1823 collapse of the First Mexican Empire, the former Captaincy-General of Guatemala was organized into a new Federal Republic of Central America. In 1838 Nicaraguamarker seceded. The Federal Republic was formally dissolved in 1840, all but one of the states having seceded amidst general disorder.


  • The Republic of Chinamarker (ROC) government, which ruled mainland China from 1911 to 1949, administers Taiwan and a few surrounding islands, while the People's Republic of China (PRC) government administers mainland China. Both sides officially claim sovereignty over both mainland China and Taiwan. There is debate in Taiwanmarker as to whether to create a new Republic of Taiwan to replace the current ROC government. At the Third session of the Tenth National People's Congress (March 14, 2005) the Chinese government adopted the Anti-Secession Law of the People's Republic of China. See Taiwan independence.
  • Within the PRC, the two western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet are also the focus of strong secessionist calls, which are strongly suppressed within the PRC. The dispute is a result of the unique ethnic, cultural, and religious characters of the two regions, and from differences in the interpretation of the history, political status, and human rights situation in the regions. See International Tibet Independence Movement and East Turkestan independence movement.


In 1960 the State of Katanga declared independence from the Democratic Republic of the Congomarker. United Nations troops crushed it in Operation Grand Slam.


In 1974 the Turkish Army conquered northern Cyprusmarker to protect the interests of the ethnic Turkish minority, who in the following year formed the Turkish Federative State of Cyprus and in 1983 declared independence as the Republic of Northern Cyprusmarker, recognized only by Turkey.

East Timor

The Democratic Republic of Timor-Lestemarker (also known as East Timor) has been described as having "seceded" from Indonesiamarker. After Portuguesemarker sovereignty was terminated in 1978, Indonesia forcefully assimilated East Timor. However the United Nations and the International Court of Justicemarker refused to recognize this incorporation. Therefore the resulting civil war and eventual 2002 Timorese vote for complete separation are better described as an independence movement.


Following the 1993 victory of counterrevolutionary forces in an Ethiopianmarker civil war, Eritreamarker, which had been united to that country by conquest by Italy, seceded in a United Nations referendum. Secessionist forces in Tigre and elsewhere agreed to continue Ethiopia as a federation.

Gran Colombia

After a decade of tumultuous federalism, Ecuadormarker and Venezuelamarker seceded from Gran Colombia in 1830, leaving the similarly tumultuous United States of Colombia, now the Republic of Colombiamarker which also lost Panamamarker in 1903.

Republic of India

The Constitution of India does not allow Indian states to secede from the Union. Secessionist movements in Nagalandmarker and Sikkimmarker have been suppressed by the military, and separatist sentiment still runs strong in those states. Secessionists were also active in Mizorammarker, Punjabmarker as Khalistan, Assammarker, Manipurmarker, Tripuramarker and Tamil Nadumarker although these separatist sentiment has died down in those states. This has been due to a mixture of military action and political agreements. See for example, Mizo Accord and Assam Accord. However Nationalist political parties, such as the Hurriyat Conference although active, face several restrictions by India since it was given a special status within the Union of India although, according to the UN the territory of Jammu and Kashmirmarker is a freedom struggle not a secessionist movement since the people never voted to join India and have not integrated into their society.


The northern-Italian party Lega Nord has declared in September 15 1996 the secession of Padania (Northern-Italy) for the differences of culture and economy between North and South, for opposition to the centralism of Rome. The politics of secession has been turned off by Lega Nord, after the coalition with the Centre-Right parties and the proposals of devolution and federalism. Although, an ineffective Parliament has been conserved into the Party and its regional sections are named as "national".

Islamic Republic of Iran

Active secession movements include Assyrian independence, Khuzestanmarker (Arab nationalist), Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran , Al-Ahwaz Arab People's Democratic Popular Front, Democratic Solidarity Party of Al-Ahwaz and Balochistan People’s Party (BPP), supporting Baloch separatism.


When racial and partisan strife erupted, Singaporemarker left the Malaysian federation in 1965. Agitation for secession has since been sporadic on the culturally distinct large island of Borneomarker in the states of Sabahmarker and Sarawakmarker.


New Zealand

Secession movements have surfaced several times in the South Islandmarker of New Zealand. A Premier of New Zealand, Sir Julius Vogel, was amongst the first people to make this call, which was voted on by the Parliament of New Zealand as early as 1865. The desire for South Island independence was one of the main factors in moving the capital of New Zealand from Aucklandmarker to Wellingtonmarker that year.

The South Island Party with a pro-South agenda, fielded candidates in the 1999 General Election and a new South Island Party was formed before the 2008 General Election. Today, the question of South Island Independence remains a matter of public debate rather than a political issue.


Between 1967 and 1970, the unrecognised state of Biafra (The Republic of Biafra) seceded from Nigeria, resulting in a civil war that ended with the state returning to Nigeria.Later in 1999 at the beginning of a new democratic regime, other secessionist movements emerged, the movement for the Actualization of a Sovereign state of Biafra was formed as a military wing of the Republic of Biafra.

Norway and Sweden

Sweden, having left the Kalmar Union with Denmark and Norway in the 16th century, entered into a loose personal union with Norway in 1814. Following a constitutional crisis, in 1905 the Norwegian Parliamentmarker declared that King Oscar II had failed to fulfill his constitutional duties on June 7. He was therefore no longer King of Norway and because the union depended on the two countries sharing a king, it was thus dissolved. After negotiations Sweden agreed to this on October 26.


After the Awami League won the 1970 national elections, negotiations to form a new government foundered, resulting in the Bangladesh Liberation War by which the eastern wing of Pakistanmarker seceded.


Somalilandmarker is an autonomous region, which is part of the Somali republicmarker. Those who call the area the Republic of Somaliland consider it to be the successor state of the former British Somaliland protectorate. Having established its own local government in Somaliamarker in 1991, the region's self-declared independence remains unrecognized by any country or international organization.

Soviet Union

In 1990, after free elections, Soviet Lithuania declared independence. Other SSRs followed and the Soviet Unionmarker collapsed.

South Africa

In 1910, following the British Empire's defeat of the Afrikaner in the Boer Wars, four self-governing colonies in the south of Africa were merged into the Union of South Africa. The six regions were the Cape Colony, Orange Free Statemarker, Natal and Transvaalmarker. Following the election of the Nationalist government in 1948, some English-speaking whites in Natal advocated either secession or a loose federation. In 1993, leading into South Africa's first elections of universal suffrage and the end of Apartheid, the Natal and Cape regions called for their secession from South Africa. Pressure from the National Party government and the ANC (African National Congress) managed to suppress the two movements. In 2008, a political movement calling for the return to independence of the Cape resurged in the shape of the political organisation, the Cape Party. The Cape Party contested their first elections on 22 April 2009.


Spain (known officially as "the Kingdom of Spain") was assembled in the 15th century from various component kingdoms, of which Portugal seceded in the Portuguese Restoration War while other component kingdoms lost their secession wars. Spain has several secessionist movements, the most notable being in Catalonia and the Basque Country.

Sri Lanka

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam operated a de facto independent state in eastern and northern Sri Lankamarker until 2009.


In 1847 seven disaffected Catholic cantons formed a separate alliance because of moves to change the cantons of Switzerland from a confederation to a more centralized government federation. This effort was crushed in the Sonderbund war and a new Swiss Federal Constitution was created.

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom has a number of secession movements:

The Republic of Irelandmarker comprises the only territory that has withdrawn from the United Kingdom proper; as the Irish Free State it gained independence in 1922 (independence had been declared in 1916).

United States

Discussions and threats of secession have often surfaced in American politics, but only in the case of the Confederate States of America was secession actually declared. A 2008 Zogby International poll revealed that 22% of Americans believe that "any state or region has the right to peaceably secede and become an independent republic." The United States Supreme Court ruled in Texas v. White, 74 U.S. 700 (1869), that while the union was "perpetual" and that secession ordinances were "absolutely null," membership nevertheless could be revoked "through revolution, or through consent of the States."


North Yemenmarker and South Yemen merged in 1990; tensions led to a 1994 southern secession which was crushed in a civil war.


On June 25, 1991, Croatiamarker and Sloveniamarker seceded from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslaviamarker. Others followed, the federation collapsed, and the remaining country, was renamed to Federal Republic of Yugoslaviamarker. Several civil wars ensued in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and later, Kosovo.

Kosovo declared independence on February 17, 2008 and was recognized by several dozen countries, but remained under United Nations administration for several months prior to succession. Montenegromarker peacefully separated from its union with Serbia in 2006.

See also





  1. Allen Buchanan, “Secession”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2007 [,+Secession:+The+Morality+of+Political+Divorce+From+Fort+Sumter+t&ei=dI3nSuSIKqb0ygSThvjfCw#v=onepage&q=strategy&f=false pgs. 15, 27, 65, 128.
  2. Scott Boykin, “The Ethics of Secession,” in David Gordon, Secession, State and Liberty, Transactions Publishers, 1998.
  3. Robert W. McGee, Secession Reconsidered, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Fall 1994.
  4. David Gordon, Secession, State and Liberty, Transactions Publishers, 1998.
  5. “Secession As an International Phenomenon,” Abstracts of Papers, 2007 Association for Research on Ethnicity and Nationalism in the Americas” conference sponsored by the University of South Carolina Richard Walker Institute for International Studies.
  6. Allen Buchanan, How can We Construct a Political Theory of Secession?, paper presented October 5, 2006 to the International Studies Association.
  7. Anthony H. Birch, "Another Liberal Theory of Secession," Political Studies 32, 1984, 596-602.
  8. Walter Williams, Parting company is an option, WorldNetDaily.Com, December 24, 2003.
  9. Jane Jacobs, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Vintage, 1985.
  10. Frances Kendall and Leon Louw, After Apartheid: The Solution for South Africa, Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1987. One of several popular books they wrote about canton-based constitutional alternatives that include an explicit right to secession.
  11. Leopold Kohr, The Breakdown of Nations, Routledge & K. Paul, 1957
  12. Human Scale, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1980.
  13. University of Technology, Sydney description of Aleksandar Pavkovic
  14. Aleksandar Pavkovic, Secession, Majority Rule and Equal Rights: a Few Questions, Macquarie University Law Journal, 2003.
  15. Steven Yates, “When Is Political Divorce Justified” in David Gordon, 1998.
  16. Santosh C. Saha, Perspectives on contemporary ethnic conflict, p. 63, Lexington Books, 2006 ISBN 0739110853.
  17. Paul D. Elliot, The East Timor Dispute, The International and Comparative Law Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Jan., 1978).
  18. James J. Fox, Dionisio Babo Soares, Out of the ashes: destruction and reconstruction of East Timor‎, p. 175, ANU E Press, 2003, ISBN 0975122916
  19. Thomas D. Musgrave, Self-determination and national minorities, p. xiii, Oxford University Press, 2000 ISBN 0198298986
  20. UNPO on West Balochistan
  21. No Winner Seen in Somalia's Battle With Chaos New York Times, June 2, 2009
  22. The Transitional Federal Charter of the Somali Republic: "The Somali Republic shall have the following boundaries. (a) North; Gulf of Aden. (b) North West; Djibouti. (c) West; Ethiopia. (d) South south-west; Kenya. (e) East; Indian Ocean."
  23. CIA - The World Factbook - Somalia
  24. The Signs Say Somaliland, but the World Says Somalia
  25. UN in Action: Reforming Somaliland's Judiciary
  26. SOUTH AFRICA: Cry of Secession TIME, Monday, May 11, 1953
  27. A Brief Survey of Swiss History, Switzerland Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.
  28. Middlebury Institute/Zogby Poll: One in Five Americans Believe States Have the Right to Secede, Zogby International, July 23, 2008.
  29. Alex Mayer, Secession: still a popular idea?, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 25, 2008.
  30. Texas v. White, 74 U.S. 700 (1868) at Cornell University Law School Supreme Court collection.
  31. Aleksandar Pavković, Peter Radan, Creating New States: Theory and Practice of Secession, p. 222, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2007.

Further reading

  • Mario Pascalev, "Territory: An Account of the Territorial Authority of States." Dissertation, Bowling Green State University, VDM, 2009.
  • Dmitry Orlov, Reinventing Collapse, New Society Books, 2008, ISBN 9780865716063
  • Allen Buchanan, Justice, Legitimacy, and Self-Determination: Moral Foundations for International Law (Oxford Political Theory), Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Marc Weller, Autonomy, Self Governance and Conflict Resolution (Kindle Edition), Taylor & Francis, 2007.
  • Anne Noronha Dos Santos, Military Intervention and Secession in South Asia: The Cases of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Kashmir, and Punjab (Psi Reports), Praeger Security International, 2007.
  • Wayne Norman, Negotiating Nationalism: Nation-Building, Federalism, and Secession in the Multinational State, Oxford University Press, USA, 2006.
  • Robert, F. Hawes, One Nation, Indivisible? A Study of Secession and the Constitution, Fultus Corporation, 2006.
  • Secession And International Law: Conflict Avoidance-regional Appraisals, United Nations Publications, 2006.
  • Marcelo G. Kohen (Editor), Secession: International Law Perspectives, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Miodrag Jovanovic, Constitutionalizing Secession in Federalized States: A Procedural Approach, Ashgate Publishing, 2006.
  • Christopher Heath Wellman, A Theory of Secession, Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Bruno Coppieters, Richard Sakwa (Editors), Contextualizing Secession: Normative Studies in Comparative Perspective, Oxford University Press, USA, 2003.
  • Percy Lehning, Theories of Secession, Routledge, 1998.
  • David Gordon, Secession, State and Liberty, Transactions Publishers, 1998.
  • Metta Spencer, Separatism: Democracy and Disintegration, Rowan & Littlefield, 1998.
  • Hurst Hannum, Autonomy, Sovereignty, and Self-Determination: The Accommodation of Conflicting Rights, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.
  • Allen Buchanan, Secession: The Morality Of Political Divorce From Fort Sumter To Lithuania And Quebec, Westview Press, 1991.
  • Leopold Kohr, The Breakdown of Nations, Routledge & K. Paul, 1957.

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