Boundaries, Federalism and Secessionism: A brief review of Allen Buchanan’s “Theories of Secession”

The reading titled ‘Theories of Secession’ written by Allen Buchanan deals with a topic that is rarely paid attention to, namely that of secession.  Irrespective of the chaos and turmoil episodes of secession bring with them, it is better to have in place a framework for analyzing it, as opposed to neglecting it by taking moral high ground.  Buchanan has attempted the former, through answering important questions as “Under what conditions does a group have a moral right to secede, independently of any questions of institutional morality, and in particular apart from any consideration of international legal institutions and their relationship to moral principles?  And under what conditions a group should be recognized as having a right to secede as a matter of international institutional morality, including a morally defensible system of international law.”

The first of these questions is the more substantive one – being likely to find application in all types of social organization.  The second question, on the other hand appears to be temporally linked to modern polity, with attendant legal technicalities in the form of internationally accepted rights and responsibilities.  Buchanan believes that the answer to the first question could provide significant insights to improving prevailing international law with respect to secession.  The relevance of answers to these questions cannot be overstated, as cross-border conflicts across the world tend to lead to gross human-rights violations.  Global polity is firstly in dire need of a broad analytic framework to deal with the phenomenon of secession.  Equally urgent is the drafting and acceptance of unambiguous and just international laws that would set guidelines for cases of secession.  Allen Buchanan tackles these questions competently, thereby providing the foundation for more concrete actions from the international community.


Buchanan A, “Theories of Secession” Philosophy and Public Affairs 26,1, 1997 pp.31-61