Here’s an interesting question: do people really want to live in the states they live in? I know that many want to migrate, but those who want to stay may also want to live in a different state.
If we want to respond positively to some people’s desires for a different set of international borders I assume we have to do so democratically. But how do we decide which is the “people” that can vote democratically to change the borders of the state it lives in? A minority which wants to secede? What about the wishes of the rest of the citizens of the existing state?
I guess one principle we could use in deciding whether or not to allow the redrawing of borders is self-government. The purpose of borders and therefore also of the redrawing of borders is to give more groups of people more self-government. If new borders yield more self-government then that’s one good reason to go ahead. Yet I doubt that this is the only principle that has to be taken into consideration. After all, if it were the only principle, single person states would be optimal, and that’s an absurd conclusion.
So, in other words: to what extent should a democratic vote be allowed to result in new states or state borders, and what does a democratic vote mean in this setting? Does a majority or a minority within an existing democracy have a right to secede if it democratically votes for secession? And is a democratic vote for secession a vote within the group that wants to secede? Or a vote among everyone in the existing state? Do those left behind have a right to stop secession? If so, what would be the basis of this right? It can’t be self-government. Those left behind would end up with more self-government, even if they oppose secession.
If self-government is an important right – as it surely is – then is it not the case that secession is also an important right if and when it results in more and better self-government? Perhaps it is. But if it is, how far does it go? It should obviously stop short of the one person state, at least if we agree that the notion of the state as we have it now remains useful – in other words, if we’re not anarchists. Another way of asking this question: what is the optimal state configuration from the point of view of self-government? Clearly, if a state contains marginalized minorities which are also territorially concentrated, and if democratic reforms meant to help those minorities are unsuccessful, then the size of this state is not optimal. The same is true when groups spread over different states have a strong urge to live together and self-govern their destiny. But what of other cases?
For the moment, I don’t intend to examine these questions any further. I’ll instead limit myself to an example: if people in the Middle East could democratically choose what country they lived in, would they choose the one they are in now? It seems not:
This map is conjecture, of course, since people haven’t been asked their opinion. Nor will they any time soon. Imagine current leaders giving up oil fields. Right, you can’t.
However, maybe the Arab Spring makes some things more likely. People don’t only question rulers but also states, and the popular uprisings in the Middle East intensifies this questioning. Listen to the Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, to the Baha’i in Iran, etc. Part of the reason is the artificial nature of many borders in the Middle East.
In the Middle East … the countries are mostly the product of a British-French agreement made in 1916 (Sykes-Picot) that paid little attention to local sociopolitical realities. As a result, few possess the historical roots, social cohesion, and legitimacy necessary to nurture the complex institutions that are a prerequisite for development and democracy. On the contrary, most suffer from both sectarian divisions and weak government—the causes of state fragility. (source)
Not that this problem is limited to the Middle East (see here), but it can become more salient during popular uprisings or violent conflict. For example, here’s an animation showing the current borders of African countries and what they will become if different separatist or independence movements will have their way:
(source, where you can also find an interactive version)
More human rights maps here.