Recently I was speaking to a friend who prides herself on being ‘from the far-Left’ and the discussion was around the topic of nation states and nationalism. I have always been fairly interested in testing and hypothizing disparate scenarios, often even on the extremes, and yet naturally taking a nuanced and hopefully informed stance.  In this particular instance, we were cavorting through the free ways of hypothesis, nay wild conjecture, and some intellectual cartwheels. And then suddenly the discussion ended up on the singular and idiosyncratic point of the possibility of no nation states whatsoever. A free flow of people, of ideas, of humanity in all its glory and freedom. So beautiful, so utopian! The idea probably sprouted from words of people like Benedict Anderson who characterised a nation as an “imagined community” and Paul James who saw it as an “abstract community”, and somewhat aligning ourselves with these ideas, at least intellectually, since at the end of the day a nation is oft-about a fairly impersonal coming-together of people who are virtual strangers but who identify with a central conception of nationhood. It is an idea, a conception. Getting back at our trip down hypothesis-boulevard, if there was ever such a place, we reflected on points similar to what Prof. Dr, Klaus F. Zimmermann (Professor of Economics at Bonn Univeristy and Harvard University), in his article ‘What if there were no national borders?‘, spoke at length about: how, sans international boundaries, the increased mobility could help international economics and social equity.

What a blissful world that’d be, surely! 

And then reality hit us – the quintessential administrative conundrum. Of how to keep people away from concentrating in places conducive to subsistence and prosperity. Of people not creating nations again as per self-interest and alliances of convenience. So, we ended up deciding that contemporary nation states are possibly convenient and useful, unless one could think of an international system of just provinces under one umbrella (a tad bit utopian too). However, the question of identities around nation-states, nationalism and self-determination was a much more grey area. More importantly, we ended up at the buzzword of the hour, and a highly relevant point of discussion today: decolonisation.

The question of state and statehood, nation states and nationhood have confounded political thinkers for years. To begin with, what is a state? One of the most famous definitions of the ‘state’ is Weber’s which describes the state as a compulsory political organization with a centralized government that maintains a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a certain territory. Marxist thought regards the ends of the state as being the perpetuation of class domination in favour of the ruling class which, under the capitalist mode of production, is the bourgeoisie, and as per the Communist Manifesto, Marx said that

the executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie

Another commonly accepted definition of the state is the one given at the Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States in 1933, which says

[t]he state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.


[t]he federal state shall constitute a sole person in the eyes of international law.

A nation, on the other hand, is a political entity composed of a stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common territory, ethnicity, language, history, or a common culture. As per Anthony D. Smith in The Ethnic Origins of Nations, ‘It (a nation) is a cultural-political community that has become conscious of its autonomy, unity, and particular interest‘. Contemporary political thinkers have started to rue the future of nation states in the context of increased globalisation. Thinkers like Samuel Huntington say that it will be the cultural and religious identities of people that will be the primary source of conflict in the post–Cold War world. There is the concept of postnationalism, which is the process or trend by which nation states and national identities lose their significance relative to global and supranational entities. Globalisation, internalisation of financial markets, rise of socio-political super national bodies, and the advent of new information and culture technologies has led to what Jan Zielonka of Oxford University would called new-medievalism, which refers  to “overlapping authorities, divided sovereignty, multiple identities and governing institutions, and fuzzy borders”.

Colonialism may have legally and formally receded from the world today, but its aftereffects are felt on the global system as much today as ever, in the process of creating new borders, dealing with compromised identity politics and self determination of communities. Scholars have increasingly become aware of the fact that postcolonial nations were not simply created, but instead a messy and long drawn process was put in place instead. A process of trying to imagine new nations. A process of understanding what it truly means to be decolonized. The intersection of the decolonisation of governance with the decolonisation of the human element creates a complex conflict whereby the drawing of borders and conception of nationalities created  compromised identities. Questions like what does it mean to be a citizen of such a postcolonial country mean, who is a citizen, what does citizenship entail, both in terms of rights and responsibilities, are relevant and emergent. At its core, decolonisation is about creating the basis and foundation for states in the vacuum left by the colonial powers. However, since there are numerous problem regions which defy the normative notion of the nation state and what it means to be sovereign, this is not an easy project. States with fractured identities or compromised cultures are weak from the beginning and have to contend with the perennial debate of territorial sanctity and integrity vs.self determination of its constituents.

It is this pertinent point within the discussion of decolonisation that fascinates and intrigues me immensely.  In our world, there are far more self-identified nations than there are existing states and there is the interesting question and dilemma of redrawing state boundaries according to the will of these people. Where does one begin and where does one stop? Whose identity or culture or intersectionality of both should determine this process? According to the Helsinki Final Act (1975), the United Nation, International Court of Justice and international law experts, there is no contradiction between the principles of territorial integrity and self determination, with the former taking precedence. In their work In Pursuit of Sovereignity and Self Determination: Peoples, States and Secession in the International Order, Aleksandar Pavkovic and Peter Radan talk about three ways to resolve this dilemma. Firstly, the realist theory of international relations, pursued by major powers during the Cold War, states that territorial sovereignty is more important than national self-determination. Second comes liberal internationalism that promotes increased individual liberty within states and the abolition of war among states, and holds that the expansion of cross-border cooperation and global markets reduces the importance of territorial integrity, allowing for somewhat greater recognition of self-determination of people. Thirdly and lastly, we have cosmopolitan liberalism that calls for political power to shift to a world government which would make secession and change of boundaries a relatively easy administrative matter, thereby effectively ending self-determination of national groups.

I believe that only if a people have faced injustices, discrimination and/or violence beyond repair then there should be the possibility of seeking greater self-determination and autonomy. The question is who judges what is beyond repair? This does bring the question of self determination from the realm of statecraft to the realm of human rights. An interesting point that Allen Buchanan (James B. Duke Professor of philosophy at Duke University) makes here is that he can only acknowledge secession in two instances: one, to remedy wrongs as in the aforementioned point, and two, if the state grants, or the constitution includes, a right to secede. I have always been a stickler for balance, and believe in this case that one can maintain the territorial integrity of a nation without compromising on self determination of people within it by greater decentralisation and devolution of power to its constituents, particularly those who may be at odds with the conception of the nation state promulgated or who seek self determination for one of many possible reasons.  Most nation states today do not have any clauses in their constitution for self determination of their constituents by secession. There are some provisions, however, to do so, in others, under specific circumstances. For example, in the United States of America, Abraham Lincoln said that secession might be possible through amending the United States Constitution. Countries like the People’s Republic of China on the other hand has strict anti-secession rules.

In the UN Charter, Article 73 noted that

[m]embers of the United Nations which have or assume responsibilities for the administration of territories whose peoples have not yet attained a full measure of self-government recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount […]

in order to

[d]evelop self-government, to take due account of the political aspirations of the peoples, and to assist them in the progressive development of their free political institutions, according to the particular circumstances of each territory and its peoples and their varying stages of advancement […]

Article 76 (b) points out that one of the aims of the trusteeship system is

[t]o promote the political, economic, social, and educational advancement of the inhabitants of the trust territories, and their progressive development towards self-government or independence as may be appropriate to the particular circumstances of each territory and its peoples and the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned, and as may be provided by the terms of each trusteeship agreement

In addition to the United Nations charter, two United Nations’ declarations have addressed the issue of self-determination: the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries as well as the 1970 Friendly Relations Declaration. Both these declarations envision self-determination leading to secession as a matter of last resort only and both confirmed the importance of the principle of territorial integrity of existing states. In addition, the principle of the self-determination was highlighted in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which was ratified by the majority of the countries in the world, with the exception of Antigua and Barbuda, Bhutan, Burma, Kiribati, Brunei, Malaysia, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Qatar, Oman, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Tonga, Solomon Islands, South Sudan, Tuvalu, United Arab Emirates and Fiji.

Today, international law bestows on all people the right to self-determination, but it bestows the right to external self-determination, exercised through remedial secession, only in extreme circumstances, to severely persecuted and colonized peoples. International law tolerates secession in cases of external self-determination, where a people is oppressed or colonized (like in Kosovo), while secession is disallowed under international law if the secessionist entity is attempting to separate by violating another fundamental norm of international law. In other cases of attempted secession, where the relevant people is not colonized or oppressed, international law is neutral on secession. In such case, it neither prohibits nor supports secession, and allows the dispute to be settle using domestic law and political negotiations with the country. It important to note some of the terms of conditions that are essential in order to realize the right to self-determination. Eyassu Gayim, political thinker and scholar, claims that at least the following conditions should be present:

  • a clear territorial division
  • will of the group of people
  • public awareness
  • no external intervention or manipulation
  • an independent forum for discussion before making a decision

The Remedial Right Only Theory suggests a list of occasions which can justify secession, and seems to be quite reasonable. It also emphasises that secession could only be a matter of the last resort. Thereby, besides the decentralisation and devolution model, this theory provides the essential balance between the territorial integrity and the right of the people to self-determination.

We live in an age where free will and the relational reality of people in society are becoming increasingly important, when self determination and self actualisation is key to the wellbeing and effectiveness of a people in their lives, society, politics and conception of oneself.  In this age, decolonisation is an important aspect of life. Decolonisation of lives, societies and, most importantly, minds. However, on a practical level, usually in extreme cases of persecution and continued colonisation, the debate of self determination and self assertion against maintaining the status quo of international geopolitics in the form and nature of existing nation states emerges. It is in this context that either Remedial Right Only Theory or decentralisation and devolution of power by a state to its constituents is crucial. I would like to end this essay with the powerful and high relevant words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need.