For decades, international law has denied the right to secede even if it enshrines self-determination. Existing scholarship explains this contradiction by opposing the right to self-determination and the principle of territorial integrity: self-determination itself does not justify a valid claim to the disputed territory. This article, against conventional wisdom, argues that the opposition is superficial. The real problem lies within the notion of self-determination itself. Self-determination contains within it two opposite faces: one breeds separatist movements; the other supports unification and territorial sovereignty. Historically, self-determination grounded both union and separation in the rise of the nation-state; secessionist self-determination only came into play when epochal wars had weakened the sovereignty of the parent state. Conceptually, the ambiguity of self-determination makes defining the ‘self’ a daunting task for the law, especially when both the parent state and the seceding group make national claims.
© 2017 by Walter de Gruyter Berlin/Boston