Pax populi? An analysis of the conflict resolution potential of referendums on self-determination

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The international community increasingly promotes referendums as it intervenes in self-determination conflicts around the world. However, the ability of self-determination referendums to bring about peace remains uncertain. This paper develops the argument that the conflict resolution potential of self-determination referendums is conditional, depending on whether or not they are held under the mutual agreement of the relevant minority and majority groups. When mutually agreed, self-determination referendums are likely to generate shared perceptions of fair decision-making and thereby increase chances for peace. By contrast, unilateral self-determination referendums are likely to increase ethnic grievances and, therefore, the risk of separatist violence. I find support for this argument in a global statistical analysis, short case studies, and a survey experiment. Overall, this study suggests that self-determination referendums can make a positive contribution to peace, but only if the conditions for a partial compromise on a referendum, including its terms, are ripe.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)403 - 423
Number of pages21
JournalEuropean Political Science Review
Issue number3
Early online date16 May 2022
Publication statusPublished - 16 Aug 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the 2015 APSA Annual Meeting, the 2019 IPSA Joint Colloquium, the 2020 SPSA Annual Congress, an online conference organized by the European Centre for Minority Issues in 2021, and seminars at the Catholic University of Lublin and the University of Zurich. I would like to thank all conference and seminar participants for helpful comments and suggestions and, in particular, Daniel Bochsler, Lars-Erik Cederman, Kanchan Chandra, Anja Giudici, Dominik Hangartner, Simon Hug, Marcin Kosienkowski, Fernando Mendez, Brendan O’Leary, Matt Qvortrup, Nicholas Sambanis, Uwe Serdült, Marco Steenbergen, Jonathan Wheatley, Julian Wucherpfennig, as well as three anonymous reviewers and the editors of this journal. I gratefully acknowledge funding by the Swiss National Science Foundation (135127 and 162220) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ES/W000598/1). The experimental study was approved by the University of Bath’s Social Science Research Ethics Committee (S19-076). Replication files can be found at


  • civil war
  • ethno-nationalism
  • procedural fairness
  • referendums
  • self-determination
  • separatism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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