Scotland Vote Raises Questions of International Law

Scotland’s referendum on independence from the United Kingdom has captured the world’s attention.  It has also raised questions about the role of international law in the game of people’s self-determination and territorial integrity.  

International law prohibits the use or threat of forcible invasion against the territorial integrity of a country.  But experts say self-determination, as defined and protected by international law, is confined narrowly to independence movements in the process of de-colonization.

But the protections are often confused with national separatism or secessionist movements, according to researcher Tom Grant of the Lauterpacht Center for International Law at Cambridge University.

“At the outset, it is important to be clear that self-determination does not equate in most circumstances to a legal right to separate and form a new state,” said Grant.

Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy International Law Professor Hurst Hannum holds a similar view.

“The goal of many sub-state groups is to combine this notion of what was really de-colonization, but which the U.N. calls determination, with the early 19th century notion of nationalism and national self-determination.  So if a group [is] somehow cohesive in terms of culture, or language or ethnicity, [it] would have the right to govern itself.  That particular approach has never been part of the international law,” said Hannum.

Grant points out international law does not specify how to deal with a secessionist movement within a country.

“International law certainly tells us that Country A cannot change the boundary of Country B without Country B’s consent.  But what it does not tell us is what happens if a group inside Country A seeks to change the rules of Country A and ultimately separate from Country A,” he said.

For this reason, says Hannum, many countries regularly refuse to intervene in other countries’ secessionist movements.  

“Appeals to outsiders or to international law for help with secessionist movements generally fall on deaf ears.  When they find political support, it is very difficult for them to find legal support,” he said.

University of Baltimore School of Law International Law Professor Mortimer Sellers says self-determination does not necessarily have to mean full independence.

He points to Quebec, which sought and gained more autonomy, but still remained within Canada.

“So the conflict between self-determination and territorial integrity only arises when the state oppresses its own people.  If the state recognizes the rights of all the people without respect to ethnicity, or language or religion, then there is no question of secession,” said Sellers.

Experts note that international law is irrelevant in the case of Scotland, where the referendum is taking place after the Scottish executive authority and British government reached an 2012 agreement to hold the vote and  respect the outcome.   

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Mandarin service.

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