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I was wondering under what conditions an independence referendum can be a valid referendum. It seems to me that no matter the outcome no sovereign nation would accept part of the country seceding.

The country has sovereignty and if they accept this kind of referendum they would lose their sovereignty. Under what circumstances do a people have the right to declare independence and claim a piece of land belonging to their former country?

For example, what is stopping a giant group of refugees from living in a country for a while and then declaring independence after a few years?

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    The Spanish courts have already declared the Catalonia referendum illegal, not sure what more you are looking for here? That said, "the land belongs to the country and not the people" is an extreme trivialization. This is a much more complex issue than you make it to be. – yannis Oct 2 '17 at 7:30
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    You're saying it like the Catalonians aren't just Spanish citizens themselves. This is country internal politics, which is why most countries aren't too willing to get involved. – Erik Oct 2 '17 at 7:31
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    You are also confusing ownership with sovereignty. I can own a piece of land in Spain but Spanish laws still apply there. – SJuan76 Oct 2 '17 at 7:35
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An independence referendum can be indisputably valid if it is conducted with the co-operation and consent of the sovereign government, and consistently with the constitution of the country.

Examples of this are the Scottish Independence referendum: The UK government consented to the referendum (and passed a bill to that effect) and so it was conducted within the constitutional arrangement of the UK. (The actual result was for Scotland to remain in the UK)

There was the Czechoslovakia referendum, conducted over both nations, which voted for a split into Czechia and Slovakia. Again it was done within the constitutional arrangements of Czechoslovakia.

There was the referendum to leave the European Union - an "independence" of sorts. The constitution of the EU allows countries to leave, following to a certain procedure.

In the case of the Scottish referendum it has been argued that the UK government allowed it because they thought they would win (rightly as it turned out). It has established a principle that the constituent nations of the UK are united by consent. This principle was already in the Good Friday Agreement, which provides that Northern Ireland remains part of the UK while a majority of the people there want to remain, and the UK will not prevent the North of Ireland leaving, if it so desires.

Each country has its own constitutional arrangements. Although the notion of a union by consent is well established in the UK, this is not the case in many other countries. For example, there is no mechanism for a state to leave the USA, so the United States are united by force, regardless of the consent of the citizens. Other countries may have similar arrangements, that prevent a region from leaving the nation unconstitutional, and so making even the holding of a referendum illegal.

In your particular example of refugees would depend on the country: There is nothing in the US constitution to allow it, so such a referendum would be unconstitutional. In the UK it would require an Act of Parliament to authorise such a referendum and legitimise it. Without such an act the referendum would carry no authority. The closest thing I can think of in historical terms to a group of refugees being granted a country is the establishment of "Indian Territory" by the US government in the 19th century, as a place for Indians displaced (or "ethnically cleansed") by the expanding USA.

  • Most of the success cases are sovereign nations under some sort of political cooperation. Scottland was a nation which joined the UK. It still remains mostly a nation as it has its own government separate from the UK government. The same could be said about Slovakia and Bulgaria. Very interesting answer, thank you! – Kenny Steegmans Oct 2 '17 at 19:56
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    Scotland is not a "sovereign nation under some sort of political cooperation" The Scottish Government gets all its powers delegated to it from Westminster. Scotland has only had a devolved government since 1999. It is an integral part of the UK. It didn't join the UK, rather the acts of union formed the UK. – James K Oct 2 '17 at 20:07
  • Oh, I had understood it always had a government. I did not know it only came to be in 1999. In regards to the refugee thing, so you're saying these people can only become independent if the government agrees? Lets say the referendum in spain passed. Would spain still have to approve it? What if they have another country backing them (Russia / Ukraine Crimea issue for example)? – Kenny Steegmans Oct 3 '17 at 4:59
  • Each country has its own constitution. It would depend on the Spanish constitution, of which I'm no expert (I understand the spainish constitution says that no part of spain can leave, even if the government agrees -- spain is no the UK). Crimea/Russia, again - see the Ukrainian constitution, but war trumps constitution. If a region can defend itself militarily, it matters not what a piece of paper says. – James K Oct 3 '17 at 5:24
  • True, we all saw what happens if a bigger military power intervenes. Thanks for sticking with me and answering my questions. – Kenny Steegmans Oct 3 '17 at 12:20
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The simplest way to put the arguments of those who believe that regions have the right to secede is that governments are only just when they have the consent of the governed. If the majority of those in a large geographic region do not wish to be governed by a particular government, then that government has no claim to justly rule over them.

(Of course, it's absolutely not really that simple and there are lots of arguments on the other side. But this is the core of the "right to secede" argument.)

  • But then from the country's point of view these people, who don't agree with the government, are actually trying to steal their land. Spain or any other nation has absolutely no reason to accept this as this causes economic and geographical damage to the country. So why are these independence referendums even a thing? Why would any country accept something like this? Only an idiot or a saint would agree to something like this, right? Or am i missing something here? – Kenny Steegmans Oct 2 '17 at 18:29
  • @KennySteegmans Yes, you're definitely missing something. It's so simple and obvious, I'm not sure how to find the right words to describe it. Here's a simple way to see what you're missing. Say you have a country, A, that consists of two parts, B and C. Your argument is that B would be worse off if C secedes. But it would also be that C is worse off if B secedes. But B seceding and C seceding are the same thing. So how can both of those be true? Government is not a means for some people to own other people's land -- it's a means for collective management. Seceding is more like divorce. – David Schwartz Oct 2 '17 at 19:11
  • thank you that was very clear. But then what is sovereignty? In your example, Country A has sovereignty over the land it occupies. But if B and C can secede as they want then it means a country doesn't have sovereignty but sovereignty ultimately belongs to the people living on the land. But in that case even the smallest group of people could declare independence. – Kenny Steegmans Oct 2 '17 at 19:24
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    @KennySteegmans If governments require the consent of the governed, then sovereignty does ultimately belong to the people living on the land. Some people do argue that even the smallest group has the right to declare independence. Others accept that you have to have some realistic way to operate a government, defend borders, negotiate treaties, and so on. – David Schwartz Oct 2 '17 at 19:28
  • Thank you, this made it very clear. I was looking at the country as an entity with its own power while it is in fact only a merger of several smaller entities and has no real power unless the people say so. – Kenny Steegmans Oct 2 '17 at 19:39

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