On 18th September the people of Scotland will vote in a referendum on to decide if they want to be an independent country, or continue being a part of the United Kingdom. It is a historical moment for the kingdom, if Scotland votes yes for independence it will bring to a close a union that has stretched back to 1707 and will be the last nail in the coffin of the glorious British Empire, which will lose its final component. Many unresolved issues surround the referendum; constitutional, territorial, fiscal. Yet its implications for International Law, especially with regards to the secessionist movements, are what will interest the international community most.

International law is a fluid construct; novel state practices coupled with international approval of them leads to the evolution of the previous laws, not an abrogation of them. Therefore it is not uncommon for many areas under the ambit of international law to be under flux and subject to uncertainty. A territory calling for separation from the host state based on linguistic, cultural, ethnic or religious differences comes under the rubric of the right to self-determination; the idea that a distinct group of individuals should be allowed to govern themselves. This right was originally formulated to allow colonised people to break the yoke of oppressive and discriminatory regimes of foreign occupiers, its scope outside of that context is unclear.

When Quebec tried to secede from Canada and when Kosovo declared independence from an oppressive Yugoslavia, the legal opinion was that a unilateral declaration of independence is invalid unless there were gross violations of human rights are involved. The reason for it is that since there are countless facets in culture and ethnicity, allowing everyone to declare independence will lead to impractical fragmentation of states. But if a seceding state is recognized as legitimate by the other states, then international law is neutral. The Scottish independence is being perceived as not being a unilateral one; it comes through an agreement reached with the UK. Regardless, the International community’s acceptance of a Scotland through referendum, especially EU’s will tilt the balance of this law in favour of unilateral independence. It will lend weight to other secessionist movements in Europe such as the Catalan movement in Spain and Basque movement in France; something these countries are keen to avoid. This may be an important moment, not just for Scotland, but for International law as well.