South Sudan and the right to Secede: How to do better

By Kyle Scott, PhD

January 13, 2014 (SSNA) — The widespread violence we are seeing in South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, is disheartening. As a defender of the right to secede, and in particular as an advocate for South Sudan’s struggle for independence from the oppressive North, I find the current civil war disheartening for an additional reason. South Sudan’s struggle for independence was a struggle for a people’s right to self-determination and right to live absent totalitarian rule and oppression. The South’s push for independence, and ultimate secession, was seen as a victory by human rights advocates and others wishing to see democratic government spread throughout sub-Saharan Africa. The current state of violence undermines the legitimacy of the South’s new government, the hope for democracy in sub-Saharan Africa, and the legitimacy of secession as a viable means for preserving liberty. The right to secede must still be protected through international law and we can improve the secession process by looking at South Sudan.  

Individuals or groups have three ways to act upon their right to self-determination: exit, voice, and loyalty. As a free person one may leave one’s current situation for something that seems more appealing, one may actively lobby or appeal to public officials, or one may simply stand pat if everything seems to be going well. The first of these options is usually the last choice for practical reasons. The people of South Sudan long suffered under the regime dominated by the North. And, in the words of one of the most well-known secessionists in the U.S., when a people suffers thusly, "it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security."

Secession is given its moral justification through the idea of consent. Whether explicitly or tacitly, people must consent to be governed for governing through compulsion is totalitarianism. Governments are established to provide those things that they could not otherwise provide for themselves. People agree to live within certain defined limits in order to benefit from the protections government affords. When the government fails to protect life, liberty, and property "it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government."

When secession is an option a nation stays together through consent. When secession is not an option, and there is a "long train of abuses", a nation remains united only through compulsion. And because law should be grounded in morally justifiable positions, international law ought to protect the right to secede and international organizations must take an active role in overseeing the transition of seceding nations, particularly those without a rich history of self-government.

Secession can work as in the case of the U.S. when it seceded from Great Britain. But, what the colonies had that the South Sudanese did not was an rich history of self-government. Democratic institutions were common and the colonists were well-versed, theoretically and practically, in self-government. The South Sudanese did not share this experience which could be one reason for the violence that is now occurring after secession. Self-government requires experience, experience the South Sudanese did not have. It was irresponsible to think that South Sudan could become a successful democracy without more guidance. The international community should have provided more guidance and stronger monitors during the transition and early years. Now it is the responsibility of the international community to step in, help stop the violence, and provide direction and training in the manners and means of democracy.

Kyle Scott, PhD, has authored four books and numerous articles in outlets such as Washington Times, Huffington Post, Christian Science Monitor and dozens of local and regional outlets. He sits on the Board of Trustees for the Lone Star College System and teaches political science at University of Houston.

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