I am just curious how exactly do independence referendums work.

For instance let us assume that some people meet the criteria for a referendum and want to make a non-binding referendum. If they go the United Nations to declare a binding referendum, then if it is accepted, and the results of the vote are in favor of secession. Does the country have to abide by the results or can they just ignore it?

1 Answer 1


In short, the UN has nothing to do with referendums. A group of people can't "go to the UN and declare a binding referendum".

A country can choose to run a referendum, which may be binding or not according to its own constitutional arrangements. Other countries may choose to recognise a region as an independent country (or not). The UN only expresses the general will of the international community (especially as expressed through the permanent members of the security council)

A region may organise a vote on independence in their region, but there is absolutely no rule or international law that says that the national government is bound by it. There is a general principle of a "right to participate in government" and "the will of the people is the basis of authority for a government". Yet this does not mean that a local referendum is binding, nor that a state is obliged to hold referendums.

To take the particular case of Catalonia. There has been no recognition of the validity of the referendum by Spain. The UN is not directly involved.

If an independence group wants to hold a binding referendum, and the national government says "no" there is no way that the local group can force the national government to change its mind. There is no priniciple of international law that can compel a state to offer a binding referendum on any matter. The UN is not some kind of "super government".

Independence referendums may work in one of three ways:

The country may decide to split, and a nationwide referendum is held by the government to approve this in accordance with the country's constitution. The constitution then binds the governement to the result of the referendum. (Eg the independence of Czech and Slovakia)

The government, agrees to local demands to a referendum and voluntarily agrees to be bound by its result. The national government passes laws authorising the referendum. (Eg the Scottish referendum)

A local government or group decides to hold a referendum without the approval of the national government. Such a referendum may be considered illegal by the national government. (Eg Catalonia)

  • 1
    "Czech and Slovenia": You probably mean the Czech Republic and Slovakia. There was an independence referendum in Slovenia - but it wasn't nationwide (i.e., in all of Yugoslavia).
    – user23205
    Feb 15, 2019 at 11:05
  • 3
    Slovenia is not Slovakia and the dissolution of Czechoslovakia did not feature a referendum in any part of the process. It wasn't portrayed as a process where either country would "gain independence" on the other, but rather a process of ending the federation of two countries. Your example thus fails on multiple fronts.
    – Gweddry
    Feb 15, 2019 at 11:36
  • So question, after a non-binding referendum, the next step would be to ask for a binding referendum? How would this exactly work? Feb 15, 2019 at 17:49
  • That step would be unlikely. If the national government were willing to offer a binding referendum, then they would simply act on the result of the non-binding referendum and allow secession. If the national government doesn't allow secession after a non-binding referendum, there's no much that can be done (short of civil war).
    – Joe C
    Feb 15, 2019 at 21:02
  • @FrankfromFrankfurt if you see an obvious misspelling like that please just edit, or suggest an edit.
    – James K
    Feb 15, 2019 at 21:17

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