4th of July 1776 seen from today’s perspective on Secession and International Law.

Yesterday was 4th of July, the Independence Day of the United States of America. On this day, in the year 1776, the European colonists in North America, led by a George Washington, issued their declaration of independence from Great Britain. This was followed by an armed conflict where the would-be secessionists managed to successfully break away from Britain in large part with French and Spanish help. While the 4th of July is widely celebrated as a national holiday in the US, and by many Americans and friends of the US abroad, it would be interesting to conduct a thought experiment exploring how the US declaration of independence would have played out today, considering all the changes in international law and world opinion which have taken place since the 18th century. It would also be very interesting to relate the US declaration of independence to any of the secessionist conflicts that have arisen in other parts of the globe in recent years, most notably in the Balkans and the Caucasus, but also elsewhere.

So, how would the world be likely to look at the US declaration of independence if it happened today? My first guess is that it would most likely be negatively received. Why is this? Well, for starters, the US declaration of independence was unilateral, and not immediately recognised as valid by its parent state, the United Kingdom. In the international community today, such unilateral declarations of independence are generally frowned upon, and independence resulting therefrom is considered invalid, since it does not involve mutual consent between two sovereign entities. Moreover, the American colonists ultimately had recourse to the use of force to achieve their de facto independence, which runs against the today’s commonly accepted principle of the inviolability of state borders, and the impermissibility of changing these borders by force.

Also, the fact that the secessionists received ample French and Spanish support would probably not go down well with the mainstream media today, at least the part of it that would have been sympathetic to British motives. If we assume that Great Britain then would have had the same influence over international media like the US does today, it is likely that it would have described the American secessionists as “separatists”, and “puppets” of “Spanish and French imperialism”, similar to how the media and commentariat in the West has been conditioned to think about Russia’s support to the Abkhazians and South Ossetians in their conflict with Georgia.

Then what about the justification for US independence provided by the colonists themselves? Did the American colonists have legitimate grievances that made their continued existence under British sovereignty untenable? Apart from some disagreements regarding taxation, it is hard to conclude that this was the case. Certainly, the British, even during the Revolutionary War, neither conducted any repression of American colonists like that which Milosevic subjected ethnic Albanians to in Kosovo, nor did they carry out any mass killings, rape or other atrocities similar to what the regime in Khartoum has perpetrated in Southern Sudan.

Could the colonists have claimed to act within the scope of decolonialisation in order to justify their claim to self-determination? Possibly, although in today’s world it is more likely that the regime in Washington would have been viewed as white minority rule similar to Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, which did not satisfy basic tenets of liberal democratic governance, in particular ignoring the voices of Blacks and Native Americans. If international recognition of US independence would have been forthcoming at all under such conditions, it is highly likely that it would have happened under the aegis of policies similar to “standards before status” practiced today by the EU, and the US been given the same “supervised independence” which today applies to Kosovo.

In other words, I have to conclude that the US would have had trouble achieving its independence had it been declared in 2011 and not in 1776. Indeed, there is one last observation that bolsters my belief to that effect, and that is the behaviour of the Great Britain and the colonists towards Britain’s de facto loss of sovereignty over the United States as a result of the American Revolutionary War. As it turned out, the British finally let the Americans have their de jure independence out of bare necessity, recognising that winning back the American colonies was too costly and difficult an endeavor to pursue. Not only was the attempt to reintegrate the United States into Great Britain militarily a grand failure, but the prospect of having to continue to govern the increasingly resentful locals, which were receiving substantial support from other great powers at the time, was undoubtedly seen as a loosing proposition by the cooler heads in the British administration.

On the other hand, the mutual recognition of sovereignty between between Britain and the colonists resulted in relations between the US and Britain eventually improving, which in turn led to normalisation and ultimately to today’s “special relationship” between the two states. It is sad that such clear-sightedness and pragmatism,  not to so say magnanimity, seems to be lacking among the conflicting sides of most secessionist conflicts today.


About richard1983a

Richard holds a BA in Politics and Georgian language from the School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London, and a MA in Politics, Security and Integration from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at UCL. He has worked for the Norwegian Embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan in 2009 and the European Centre for Minority Issues in Tbilisi, Georgia in 2010, focusing on human rights, freedom of information and minority rights in both countries. He is currently looking to publish his MA thesis on the political situation of the Armenian minority in Abkhazia.
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