Matt Han / Gavel Media

'Secession as a Human Right:' Professor Timothy Waters Presents Unorthodox Solution to Border Crises

Professor Timothy Waters presented his proposal on democratizing borders in a lecture called Secession as a Human Right on Wednesday at Boston College. The presentation was hosted by the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy. 

Waters is a professor of law at the University of Indiana and Val Nolan Faculty Fellow having received his law degree from Harvard University. He is also the associate director of the Center for Constitutional Democracy. 

Recently, Waters published his book Boxing Pandora: Rethinking Borders, States, and Secession in a Democratic World, which examines the idea of rigid borders in a world shaped by colonialism. This book was the basis of the presentation. 

There is, “a standard assumption about post-war order, which is the idea that norms of territoriality and fixed border are a good thing,” Waters began. The assumption presumes that having stable exterior borders provides for stability inside the region. 

But Waters began his project by wondering whether fixed borders might actually be causing problems that they were supposed to be resolving: propagating the instability they were supposed to address.

Instead of a rigid system of borders, the model Waters proposes would allow for democratic input in creating states. This flexible system of borders, based on the idea of human rights, would be called the right to secession. 

“We all are familiar with this idea that we ought to conform borders to the place where some identifiable political community or nation live,” Waters said, citing President Woodrow Wilson as the creator of this idea.

This norm, while top-down and elitist, also carries with it the notion that all people should govern themselves.

However, after the Second World War, the reversal of Wilson’s model was enshrined in the Declaration of Human Rights. 

“While the people should govern themselves, it rapidly becomes the orthodox consensus that the people are the population of an existing territory,” Waters explained.

Wilson’s model emphasizes that people come before the formation of a state or territory. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights requires there to be a state before there can be a people. This second model becomes the classical model, the one society operates on.


There are three reasons cited for retaining the classical model of inflexible, unchangeable border lines. 

“One is about stability and violence,” Waters said. “The fear, in other words, that if we were to have relaxed borders, there would be endless fracturing, evermore states.” 

Waters disputes this first claim by citing the 17 colonies that have not declared their independence because doing so would be detrimental to their livelihoods. 

Further examples include Quebec, Canada and Scotland—two places that opted to remain inside the larger territory instead of splintering into smaller states.

“A second one is about process. If we had relaxed borders, minorities, small groups, would have lower incentive to cooperate in the state project,” he continued. 

Waters' argument was that allowing minority groups the ability to stop cooperating and form their own state, reversed the ability of the majority group to do the same thing. With inflexible borders, minority groups have no ability to create leverage, thus the majority group has no reason to engage in negotiations. By providing an ability to leave, minority groups are able to negotiate within the state.

“We think secessions probably produce illiberal regimes, they are often nationalist, and we don’t like that,” Waters finished. 

There is no valence to newly produced states, Waters asserts. The violence and nationalism that occurs are often produced because the larger territory will not let the minority group negotiate or have any autonomy. Waters' model would hopefully prevent the outbreak of violence by allowing for the pressure to be released.

Instead of operating inside the classical model, which stresses that secession is a failure, a new model would allow for the community to define its own borders and then enter into negotiations. 

“I want this to be a right that a society or community claims because it is their desire. I think that is what politics is about: people’s desire to govern themselves in a particular way, ” Waters explains.

“I am not basing this on claims about justice or historical facts,” he added. 

Both justice and history create narrow claims for allowing changing borders. Instead of focusing on historical claims, this new model would focus on the wants of people today through an electoral method. 

“At some point, one has to balance between the claims of history and living populations. I radically tilt towards these,” he added.

“My model requires two things of human beings: that they live near each other and they make a clear electoral choice,” Waters ended. 

Those present at the presentation were then invited to critique or ask for clarification on Waters’ model of creating a democratized method of secession for international borders. 

One audience member questioned how the model would impact places where not being recognized was actually beneficial. He compared the recognized state of South Sudan as compared to the unrecognized state of Somaliland. 

In response, Waters emphasized that his model was not to be applied in places embroiled in a war, because that was not the moment for intense border negotiations.

“What we use the model for is making change before the crisis comes,” Waters stressed. 

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