I was wondering if there's a historical precedent for this. Russia gained territory, but it did so after invading it and using the referendum as a way to convince it was justified. Puerto Rico was a whole country. I am wondering if there's a historical precedent or a legal basis for it to be done without war.


  • This paper seems to be highly relevant. iandrinstitute.org/docs/…
    – James K
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 21:48
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    I don't see how Puerto Rico is relevant here as thy are already a territory of the US and there is no talk of them changing that and joining a different country.
    – Joe W
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 21:55
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    Q might use some cleanup to avoid "triggering" downvotes - which may include clarifying how Porto Rico is relevant, but it seems reasonable enough to ask. +1 As the point as been made by John Dallman, it is possible, provided the initial "emitting" country is willing, without external coercion (cough, Russia, cough), to honor a secession referendum. Then, to a large extent, it becomes the business of the seceded territory and the receiving state to figure it out. The take away is, for anyone upset about RU sympathies: RU is very far away from any kind of legitimacy here. Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 22:58
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    "Legal" may be the wrong word here, since there's no binding global authority that signs off on such things. "Internationally recognized as legitimate" would be more realistic. Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 20:29
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    Russia didn't gain territory, but it militarily occupies part of the territory. Russia may claims it "integrated" them, even without having them under their control, but if nobody seriously acknowledges your territorial claims, they're quite irrelevant. Your question sounds very much troll like, you wanna get out a statement that is BS with a valid question, implicitly validating the BS claim.
    – Mayou36
    Commented Jul 8, 2023 at 7:55

5 Answers 5


As a result of the Paris Peace Conference that ended the First World War, there were a whole slew of referendums held to decide which country a territory should belong to:

  • Germany/Denmark: In Schleswig, plebiscites were held seperately for Northern Schleswig, which voted to become Danish, Central Schleswig and the southern Zone, which both voted to remain German.

  • Germany/Poland: In Upper Silesia a plebiscite voted to remain with Germany/Prussia, but the inter-Allied Commission decided to divide the region and award part of the territory to Poland.

  • Germany/Poland: In Eastern Prussia, two plebiscites were conducted for the administrative areas of Allenstein and Marienwerder. Both voted to remain part of Germany/Prussia.

  • Germany/France: In the Saar territory, the plebiscite was held only in 1935, the region being administered as a protectorate of the League of Nations for the years inbetween. The majority voted to return to Germany. Another referendum was held after the Second World War, again with the German side winning.

  • Belgium/Germany: In the cantons of Eupen-Malmedy the plebiscite decided to join Belgium.

  • Austria/Yugoslavia: The Southern Carinthians decided to remain a part of Austria.

  • Austria/Hungary: The inhabitants of Sopron and a number of surrounding settlements voted to join Hungary.

  • Austria/Switzerland: The population of Vorarlberg was asked whether it wanted to negotiate an accession to the Swiss confederation. Although the result was a Yes, the Swiss side did refuse, and nothing came of it.

Far more territories changed nationality as a result of the war without the population being asked. Some plebiscites (Tirol, Salzburg) were held, but were not accepted as legitimate by the parties of the treaties. A plebiscite about the independence of Kurdistan had been part of the provisions of the Treaty of Sèvres, but was never held.


The only way for this to be legal is if the country loosing the territory is willing to cede it to the country that acquires it. This happens from time to time, typically to simplify borders that have been made complicated by history. Carrying out the transfer requires a treaty between the countries.

For example, the UK has expressed willingness to cede Northern Ireland to Éire if the population of Northern Ireland are in favour of it, as part of the Belfast Agreement. That opinion would presumably be established via a referendum. However, that referendum would not intrinsically be binding on the UK government. The legislation creating the referendum might make the result binding, but that's a matter of the content of that particular piece of hypothetical legislation.

For the current example of eastern territories of Ukraine, Russia cannot create an enforceable right to the territory via any kind of referendum. Russia is well known to manipulate the results of its own elections. Holding a referendum in territory that is occupied by a poorly disciplined army means the results wouldn't be credible even if Russia was honestly trying to get an accurate answer. It's meaningless anyway without Ukraine's consent, so holding the referendum just makes Russia look worse.

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    It's not really about Russian electoral credibility, such as it is. Holding a secession referendum has to be freely accepted by Ukraine first. Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 22:54
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    The UK government hasn't just "expressed a general willingness" to cede Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland should that be the wish of the people of both Northern Ireland and the Republic, it has made a legal commitment to do so via the Belfast Agreement.
    – Mike Scott
    Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 6:33
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    Nitpick: If using the Irish name for the Irish state rather than calling it (Republic of) Ireland, it’s quite important to remember the fada and write it Éire. The name Eire was formerly used by the UK government (but hasn’t been for over 70 years), but has never been used in Ireland and is not used anywhere anymore – it is also a particularly unfortunate form, since eire in Irish means ‘burden’! Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 8:45
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    There are plenty of examples in History where a stronger country forced another to cede territory, with a local referendum or without. A recent example is Yougoslavia, which got broken down against its will. Self-determination is a cardinal right of modern international law, so the only legal question here is whether the people of Crimea and Eastern Territories really wanted to become independent or not? Half of the world thinks so, and once independent they had the right to ask to be part of Russia.
    – Shautieh
    Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 11:51
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica This goes against international law and the right to self-determination. Few colonies would have won their independence otherwise.
    – Shautieh
    Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 11:53

The principle of self-determination is recognized under international law and includes the right of peoples to choose their own political status and pursue their economic, social, and cultural development freely (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 1; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 1; United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2625 (XXV)). However, the exercise of this right is subject to certain conditions, including respect for the territorial integrity of existing states, the absence of coercion or manipulation, and the absence of discrimination against minorities (International Court of Justice, Advisory Opinion on the Accordance with International Law of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in Respect of Kosovo).

If a proposed referendum would affect the territorial integrity of an existing state, the legal framework and procedures for conducting the referendum are critical. The legal framework would depend on the domestic laws of the state concerned, as well as any relevant international agreements or norms that apply. The Venice Commission's Code of Good Practice on Referendums provides guidance on the legal framework and procedures for conducting referendums.

There have been historical precedents for the use of referendums to resolve territorial disputes, such as the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom. The referendum was conducted in accordance with the Scottish Independence Referendum (Franchise) Act 2013 and the Scottish Independence Referendum Act 2013. The referendum was also subject to international scrutiny, with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) sending observers to monitor the process (OSCE Final Report on the Scottish Independence Referendum).

However, the use of a referendum to determine territorial status is not a panacea and may not always be a fair or appropriate mechanism for resolving territorial disputes. In some cases, alternative mechanisms such as negotiation, mediation, or international adjudication may be more appropriate.

  • This looks like a reasonable enough answer, but Territorial Dispute isn't all that relevant to the OP's question (yes, even though they mentioned Ukraine). And it really isn't relevant to Scotland, which isn't claimed by anyone else. You can have a secession movement wo territorial dispute (Catalonia) and you can have a territorial dispute wo secession aims (empty land). You can have both (Crimea?, Kashmir) but they dont necessarily go together, your Scottish example being a case of no TD. Still, upvoted, my TD remark doesnt negate the overall quality of answer. Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 1:03

There is precedent for a country peacefully splitting into parts, for example the Dissolution of Czechoslovakia

There is also precedent of countries peacefully uniting, for example the German reunification

So it would be perfectly legal and possible for a country to split of a part and that part merging with another country.

Please note that "peacefully" here also means with no armed goons standing in polling places watching you. Peacefully means "no guns", not "no guns fired where foreign media can see it" as with the Russian "referendums".

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    Of course both of these cases are consensual on both sides. One caveat: There are cases where countries are forbidden from merging because of international obligations; e.g. Austria was forbidden from uniting with Germany in treaties after both world wars.
    – wonderbear
    Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 20:14

No, it is illegal for a country to take action of gaining the territory from another country through initiating the referendum.

This question may be related to the recent sentences of Sergey Lavrov, claiming that UN has the foreseen rules when a referendum could be held for changing the territorial integrity of the State. There is no such.

  1. All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

And this the only chapter in the United Nations Charter where the "territorial integrity" is mentioned at all. It is not about the interpretation of the rules, there are no other relevant rules to interpret, as much as exactly a country is considered.

There are some additional old rules relevant to the liberation of colonies and other "not self governed" territories. Sergey Lavrov is likely attempting to push that Crimea and other annexed territories used to be kind of a colony of Ukraine, but this looks quite questionable as colony is a territory subject to a form of foreign rule, and these regions did not have such a special status (they citizens were free to elect the President and the like). See StopFake.org.

  • But they're free to negotiate, e.g. if Austria wanted Bavaria and thought Bavaria did likewise, it could negotiate with the German government to hold a referendum, but Germany would have to give permission.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 9:59
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    True, but it is legal to push people in the contested territory to revolt and fight for independence, in order to then make a deal with them to be part of your country.
    – Shautieh
    Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 11:57
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    "Push people" is too vague. There's a world of difference between speaking in support of political change, and sending your troops in to pretend to be local forces to start a genocide. Not all methods of "push"ing are "legal"
    – bharring
    Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 20:28
  • The same can be said about all the colour revolutions pushed by the USA, and many others. Sending troups to kill and pillage in the name of democracy is not more "legal" yet the USA does this in weaker countries without much backslash.
    – Shautieh
    Commented Jul 10, 2023 at 7:09
  • You cannot really say that everything USA or "many others" has ever done automatically becomes legal as per scope of the question. There are in average 44 murders per day in USA alone, this does not make the murder legal.
    – Stančikas
    Commented Jul 10, 2023 at 7:32

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