Self-determination is loosely defined as the right of nations or peoples to "freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development"1. It is common to hear the assertion that this is a "fundamental human right". But what exactly does this mean, and is it correct?
Self-determination is an issue in many different contexts around the world. Many of these involve states which have, through territorial expansion, population shifts, boundary changes, independence from or colonisation of other nations, found themselves in charge of minority groups who may have strong ethnic, national, religious, cultural or linguistic differences from other inhabitants of a nation. This can lead to all sorts of problems; minorities may identify more strongly with a neighbouring state, or fear that their cultural and political identity is being diluted by state policies, while nation states are often concerned about instability or loss of their strong national identity if minority groups are given too much autonomy or special treatment.
So, on balance, is self-determination a universal right that should be available to all peoples, or is it an idea whose time has passed?
Many states in the modern world do not respect the rights of minorities or actively seek to dilute and subsume them into the majority culture. Others offer limited protections to minority peoples but stop short of allowing them to choose their own futures. We need to reassert their right to self-determination to ensure that these minority cultures are not lost. Failure to defend the principle of self-determination now will effectively close off the choices of future generations.
For example, Australian government policy for many decades was to ignore Aboriginal rights, denying them full citizenship1 and removing children from their homes and relocating them with white families (the so-called "stolen generation"2). As a result many indigenous Australians no longer have a strong link to their native cultures and languages. The same is arguably true in places like Tibet, where traditional culture is being diluted over time through the deliberate policy of the Chinese government.
1 See "Collaborating for Indigenous Rights", National Museum of Australia
2 "Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families", Australia Human Rights Commission, April 1997.
Forcible assimilation, as in the Australian case cited, is clearly wrong, but that does not mean that we should abandon the goal of integrating minorities into society without forfeiting their cultural, racial or religious differences. Placing undue importance on the right to self-determination may make such situations worse. Furthermore, in some situations, governments manipulate the idea of self-determination to suit their own ends. Many governments have pursued a policy of sending settlers from the majority race or religion into minority-dominated areas and then point at the difficulty of allowing such areas to implement political reforms or secede without massive social upheaval.
One example of this is Tibet, where the Chinese government has strongly encouraged ethnic Han Chinese settlers to relocate to that province with the aim of gradually reducing the impact and strength of Tibetan demands for self-government1.
In some contexts, separation may not be a realistic option for minority peoples. However, that does not mean that self-determination is not meaningful for such groups. For indigenous peoples, self-determination may take the form of restitution for land that was stolen from them, or compensation and reparations. Furthermore, self-determination may take the form of political autonomy, or greater rights to decide how children are educated, or parallel systems of justice such as sharia courts. Self-determination is about representation and identity and choice - not about outcomes.
The wrongs of colonial powers are by now far in the past. The great majority of people living in former colonies, or indigenous peoples in countries like the US or Australia, have no experience of that time and have not been directly affected by the injustices of colonialism. Making sure that everyone in society has equal rights and opportunities is nothing to do with self-determination.
Self-determination offers a way to resolve otherwise intractable disputes.
Modern liberal democracy is founded on the idea that people should be free to decide their own leaders and their own futures, but not all states give their minority peoples such a right. However, this is a right guaranteed under international law. The International Court of Justice has held that this right applies not just to national governments but also people1. The two important United Nations studies on the right to self-determination set out factors of a people that give rise to possession of right to self-determination: a history of independence or self-rule in an identifiable territory, a distinct culture, and a will and capability to regain self-governance2. If these criteria are in place, such peoples should have the right to determine their own constitutional and political arrangements.
1 Western Sahara Case, 1975 International Court of Justice 12, 31.
2Critescu, A. and GrosEspiell, H. "The Right to Self-determination", United Nations, 1980 (not online, but widely cited
The principle of self-determination might seem a straightforward one but in practice it is rarely that simple.Firstly, in many countries, majority and minority groups live side-by-side, rather than in distinct territories. Upholding the right of such a minority to self-determination may not be possible without affecting the rights of the other inhabitants of that area. This damage might be direct – for example, if the people of Catalonia decide to secede from Spain, what will happen to the Spanish inhabitants of Catalonia? – or it may be indirect, as in the example of Palestine, whose independence has long been resisted by Israel on the grounds that it would constitute a threat to Israeli security.
Second, it is often difficult to agree, particularly in disputed areas, who falls under the definition of a “native” whose right to self-determination must be respected. For example, should people in Ireland have a say over the future of Northern Ireland, given that most of them consider it an integral part of their own country? Does the right of self-determination for Israelis extend to Jews who live in other countries, given that they have the right to settle in that nation if they choose to? Does it extend to non-Jewish Israelis, and if not, why not? These questions are hard to answer neutrally; to answer them involves making difficult judgements.
Many modern nation states are the product of historical accident or hurried decolonisation processes that did not properly take account of ethnic or religious differences between peoples in the states that resulted. Examples can be seen all over the world but especially in Asia, Africa and the former Soviet Union, where postcolonial or post-Cold War boundaries separate people from their kin against their wills. Other territories may be disputed between one or more nation.
Allowing ethnic or religious groups self-determination may help to reverse the harmful effect of artificial, poorly-drawn borders. If self-determination is universally accepted (and applied) by the international community as a key principle in such disputes, they may in future be easier to resolve.
Two examples; Kashmir, which straddles the line of partition drawn up by the British when granting independence to India and Pakistan in 19471; and the Falkland Islands, which are the object of dispute between the UK and Argentina, including a brief war in 19822. History, law geography all offer competing and incompatible views of who should rightfully own these territories. If we recognise the principle of self-determination as key, however, it is clear that it is the view of the inhabitants that should decide its future. Indeed, if this principle is ignored, such disputes will rumble on for many years to come.
1 "Kashmir: Run-up to Partition", Globalsecurity.org
2 "Falklands/Malvinas War",Globalsecurity.org
For the Falkland Islanders' view of self-determination, see Falkland Island Government website, "Falklands call on UN Committee to uphold right to self-determination",
It is true that many modern states have somewhat artificial or arbitrary boundaries. However, this applies to some or other extent to all states everywhere in the world; indeed, the nation state as we know it is a relatively modern construct, and no nation state is completely ethnically or culturally homogenous. There are certainly places in the world where minorities are oppressed, but insisting on self-determination as a universal human right often merely encourages separatism, racial tension and conflict.
Furthermore, self-determination is often used by states as a casus belli and used to justify interference in neighbour's affairs and even invasion – as in the conflict between Russia and Georgia in 2008, ostensibly over the treatment of ethnic Russians in South Ossetia 1, or Hitler’s invasion of the Sudetenland in 1938 on the pretext that ethnic Germans in that area should belong to the German Reich 2. If we place too much emphasis on the importance of self-determination in all situations it may lead to worse international relations, not better. At any rate, it has not helped us solve problems in places such as Kashmir or the Falklands, which are still disputed.
Additionally, self-determination may not help us in cases such as that of the Falklands, where almost all the inhabitants are of British descent, since Argentina argues that they are in effect illegal settlers who have no right to be there in the first place.
Finally, the broader international context may mean that other interests or legal agreements must take precedence. For example, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 not out of any desire of Hong Kong Chinese to self-determination but simply because Britain’s 99-year lease on the bulk of the territory was due to expire.
1 Cornell, Svante: “War in Georgia, Jitters All Round”, Current History, October 2008. http://www.silkroadstudies.org/new/docs/publications/2007/0810CH.pdf
2 “Sudetenland”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/571568/Sudetenland
Simply being a minority in a nation should not be enough to claim the right to self-determination. As long as people have democratic rights, such as the right to protest, to lobby and to vote , they enjoy the same rights and protections as those of the majority community in that country; there should be no obligation on the state to go further in granting them self-determination. For example, during the Franco era in Spain, minority nationalities such as Basques and Catalans were for a long time discriminated against and excluded from real political power, and backed political parties that explicitly represented their community. As their position in society has improved, however, so the hold of identity-based politics has loosened, and the pull of secession has weakened1.
Minorities are often economically disadvantaged and politically marginalised; formal guarantees of equal rights, even where they exist, do not necessarily translate into real opportunities for citizens. And respect for individual rights, as important as it is, does not address issues of concern to the entire community, such as the teaching of minority languages in school, provision of facilities for religious worship, and so on. The best way to improve the situation of these minority populations is by respecting and promoting their right to self-determination. If not, they will remain second-class citizens in their own countries.
Across the developed world, modern nation states are bound into a complex network of treaties and international organisations which together go a long way to guaranteeing citizens very similar rights wherever they live. These supra-national rules make it less and less important on what side of an international boundary you happen to live. What matters is not so much self-determination as whether or not an individual citizen is able to enjoy the same rights and privileges as those of the majority culture.
For example, EU citizens enjoy many common rights, common European citizenship, freedom of movement between member states and so on. Minorities who fifty years ago might have taken up arms to "free" themselves from an oppressive nation state – such as Catholics in Northern Ireland – don’t need to do this now, because they have new rights against discrimination, guaranteed and enforced by international treaty.
Many minorities live in states where international human rights law is applied inconsistently or indeed not at all. It may not make a life-changing difference to a French-speaking Belgian which side of the France – Belgium border they happen to be born, but to a Palestinian in the West Bank or a Tamil in Sri Lanka, their right to self-determination is absolutely crucial, because other rights may well be denied to them through direct or indirect state discrimination.
It is relatively easy for states to explain away individual human rights breaches, since these occur in all nations from time to time. It is much harder for them to justify denying an entire people their right to determine their own futures.
If we accept self-determination as such an important principle that it trumps all others, this will encourage people to self-identify along nationalistic, racial or religious lines, at a time in human development when we are moving away from racist and nationalist ideologies. Nationalism is about difference, which flies in the face of the idea of the global citizen. Taken to its extremes, it encourages increased conflict, separatist terrorism. For example, the ethnic conflicts that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s were fuelled by nationalist ideologies and the stressing of the differences between ethnic and religious groups that made up that country.
In many cass, it is not self-determination that causes tensions, but the lack of opportunity for minorities to choose their own future. Conflicts and civil wars generally take place not because people want self-determination but because they are not allowed it. In the Yugoslav example, if the Milosevic government had recognised the right of the country's component ethnic groups to self-determination, rather than seeking forcibly to suppress it, then there would have been no armed conflict. In contrast, by the time Montenegro sought to secede from Serbia, the now-democratic Serb government accepted their right to do so, and the split was carried out without bloodshed1.
Critescu, A. and GrosEspiell, H. "The Right to Self-determination", United Nations, 1980 (not online, but widely cited)