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Sovereignty, Secession and Unrecognized States


This seminar will be offerend online only


In 2011, South Sudan was the latest country to become a member of the United Nations. The South Sudanese had fought a long and bloody secessionist war with Sudan until 2005, when a peace agreement was reached that allowed the South Sudanese to vote in a referendum on independence six years later. But independence did not bring peace: Since 2011, South Sudan has been embroiled in both internal and external conflict, leaving some to ask: “What was the point of independence if we are still destitute and in chaos?”
In this Bachelor seminar, we will investigate the role of secessionist movements in transforming the international system. Secessionist movements challenge the sovereignty, authority and legitimacy of the state of which they are part, while simultaneously trying to reproduce those very same characteristics in an effort to achieve international recognition.
Three central themes will be covered in this seminar. First, we will revisit the principle of sovereignty that is at the heart of the modern state, and investigate under which circum-stances state sovereignty is challenged. How do states emerge, and how do they disappear? Why do some groups refuse to recognize the authority of the state of which they are formally part? And how do states and international organizations respond when this happens?
Second, we will examine theories and practices of secession. Recognizing the tension between the principles of territorial integrity and self-determination, we will debate whether there is such a thing as a ‘right to secession,’ and look critically at partition as a solution to ethnic war. We will further examine the peaceful and violent strategies of secession that are used by those pursuing statehood, and investigate why some succeed in achieving recognition while others fail.
Third, we will explore the phenomenon of unrecognized states and take a closer look at their internal and external politics. After gaining an understanding of the difference between de facto and de jure statehood, we will study empirical examples of cases that achieved the former, but not the latter.

Learning goals

Students who complete this course will develop:

  • A thorough understanding of the concepts of sovereignty, secession and statehood and their empirical manifestations, as well as the theoretical approaches to and normative debates on these subjects, and

  • The ability to apply these concepts, approaches and debates in studying particular cases.

Method of instruction

Interactive seminars

Assessment method

The final grade for this course is composed of the following elements:

  • Participation (10%)

  • Two reflection papers (15% each)

  • Case study presentation (20%)

  • Final paper (40%)

Reading list

The syllabus with a reading list will be made available via Brightspace one week before the beginning of the course.


See 'MyTimetable'