Self determination

The principle of self-determination, often seen as a moral and legal right, is that every nation is entitled to a sovereign territorial state, and that every specifically identifiable population should choose which state it belongs to, often by plebiscite. It is commonly used to justify the aspirations of an ethnic group that self-identifies as a nation toward forming an independent sovereign state, but it equally grants the right to reject sovereignty and join a larger multi-ethnic state.

Although there is a consensus that international law recognizes the principle of self-determination, the principle does not, by itself, define which group is a nation, which groups are entitled to sovereignty, or what territory they should get for that purpose. Its application in international law creates a tension between this principle and the principles of territorial integrity and non-intervention in internal affairs.

The principle of self-determination formally expresses a central claim of nationalism, namely the entitlement of each nation to its own nation state. It has itself become a typical demand of nationalist movements. However, the formal expression of the principle came later than the nationalist movements, and the first nation-states. In the 20th century the principle was central to the process of decolonisation, but its use is not limited to contesting colonialist or imperialist rule.

Some interpretations of the principle in ethics treat it as a translation or extension of universal rights of individuals (political freedom, freedom of religion, freedom of speech) to a group. Sometimes it is treated as a specific collective right, distinct from individual rights. It is a disputed principle in ethics, with some arguing that no such entitlement exists, other than perhaps the right to resist or secede from tyranny.

History and overview

The principle that a state should be sovereign and autonomous has long been associated with the idea of the state itself. The ideal of self-determination by a specific population (rather than their rulers) is of later origin. Early statements of the principle can be found in the Declaration of Independence of the United States. In 1859 John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty that political communities are entitled collectively to determine their own affairs. He argues that states should be seen as self-determining communities even if their internal political arrangements are not free; self-determination and political freedom are not equivalent terms.


Main article: Wilsonian

This principle was first applied to the modern international relations context by Woodrow Wilson in his Fourteen Points of January 1918, in which he set out a blueprint for a just and lasting peace in Europe after World War I. The Wilsonian approach influenced the idealist tradition in International Relations, which has at times supported military intervention in support of self-determination.

The Soviet Union

The 1918 Constitution of the Soviet Union acknowledged this right for its constituent republics (although not for declared "autonomous" regions), but was not applied in practice until the Perestroika, when it led to the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Vladimir Lenin supported the concept of the right of a culturally distinct grouping to self-determination, albeit within the framework of proletarian internationalism and, as it turned out in the policy of the Soviet Union. The policy of Korenizatsiya seemed to indicate Lenin's sincere belief in national self-determination. However, Lenin also assumed that the populations of the ethnically diverse Soviet republics were voluntarily confederated with Russia in the form of the Soviet Union. The process of national delimitation in the Soviet Union established ethnic-national boundaries for national autonomies for non-Russian population where there was none during the times of the Russian Empire.

During the German invasion in 1941, some national minorities saw the invading forces as liberators, and some fought with Nazi Germany. After the Soviet victory, this was treated as collaboration: the issue is still contentious in the Baltic States.

In regard to a long running argument going on between Rosa Luxembourg, right-wing tendencies within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, and the Bolsheviks, Lenin said:

...[T]he tendency of every national movement is towards the formation of national states, under which these requirements of modern capitalism are best satisfied. ... [T]he national state is typical and normal for the capitalist period. Consequently, if we want to grasp the meaning of self-determination of nations ... by examining the historico-economic conditions of the national movements, we must inevitably reach the conclusion that the self-determination of nations means the political separation of these nations from alien national bodies, and the formation of an independent national state. ...[It] would be wrong to interpret the right to self-determination as meaning-anything but the right to existence as a separate state." -Lenin, What Is Meant By The Self-Determination of Nations?

The UN Charter

At the ratification of the UN Charter in post World War II 1945, the signatories introduced the right of all people to self-determination into the framework of international law and diplomacy. In addition, the right to self-determination holds the prestigious position of Article 1 in both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Its presence in the two covenants points to the right's complex nature and importance.

In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations states that everyone has the right to a nationality and that no one should be arbitrarily deprived of a nationality or denied the right to change nationality. Self-determination is often invoked in national liberation struggles, secession of territories and constitutional disputes about how this right can be expressed to the satisfaction of opposing interest groups.

Conflict with territorial integrity

At the time of the UN Charter, the focus was on the former colonies of the Axis powers, and implicitly on all overseas colonies. There was no intention to support secessionist claims in, for instance, European states. However, the concept of self-determination is by definition in tension with that of territorial integrity, which is an older principle of international law. Territorial integrity applies to integral parts of a state, and since the colonies were not seen as such (except by France), their independence was not seen as an attack on the principle. The importance attached to territorial integrity was exemplified by adherence to the principle of uti possidetis during the decolonization process. The colonial borders were retained at independence, even if they had little relevance to linguistic, ethnic and cultural boundaries. Once these new nation-states were established in Africa and Asia, some felt that the principle had been sufficiently applied, and that the principles of territorial integrity and non-intervention should again prevail. Certainly, the United Nations never supported any secession during the Cold War, other than from a colonial power.

When some of the newly independent ex-colonies faced secessionist and irredentist movements, the international consensus was that self-determination did not apply to these movements. The consensus defined a "people" entitled to self-determination as persons living in a particular geographic area, rather than persons sharing a common culture or language (a nation). This did not generally promote the political aspirations of oppressed ethnic minorities. Since the end of the Cold War, however, this consensus has eroded. Most notably, western powers gave covert and overt support to the serial secession of the constituent Republics of Yugoslavia. One of these conflicts, in Kosovo (an autonomous province within Serbia), is still unresolved.

Self-determination is a notoriously difficult principle to define and apply. A state is self-determining even if its citizens strive, and fail, to create free political institutions, however in turn, it is deprived of its self-determination if such institutions are established by an external power. Mill argued that the members of a political community must seek their own freedom, just as they may seek to be virtuous, they cannot be 'set free' just as an individual cannot be made virtuous. In this way self-determination can be seen to be a parallel to state sovereignty.

Given the perceived risk of constant fragmentation, states have approached self-determination cautiously. Methods of self-determination range from sovereignty referendum, as in the case of the people of Quebec in Canada, or as an armed struggle in the case of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. The threat of fragmentation due to self-determination can be regarded as very dangerous to other communities in a country, especially if the groups striving for self-determination live in an area with the majority of a country's wealth. On the other hand, supporters of self-determination argue that if the wealth is coming from the land they live in the local inhabitants deserve the wealth not the country as a whole. This is an important dimension of the self-determination arguments in Iraq and Nigeria as well as many other countries.

Twentieth Century issues


French Indochina came out of World War II having defeated the Japanese invasion, and yet was still a colony of the French Empire. France was arguably too weak militarily and economically, and perhaps psychologically, to maintain control of the territory, especially during the First Indochina War in the early 1950s. After the French defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, a conference convened in Geneva, Switzerland to resolve the dispute. The Geneva Conference (1954) divided the country into North Vietnam and South Vietnam, and guaranteed the Vietnamese self-determination, through a plebiscite to be held in July of 1956.The committee was too weak to enforce the accord, and South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem refused to allow free elections for determination. A Communist resistance was formed against Diem's government (the Viet Cong), sowing the seeds of the Vietnam War.


The Kingdom of Scotland was an independent state (Declaration of Arbroath, 1320) from 843 until 1707, when the Acts of Union (despite widespread protest across Scotland)[1] resulted in a political union with the Kingdom of England to create the Kingdom of Great Britain.[1][1]

In the 1980s and 1990s efforts began in earnest to create a devolved parliament in Scotland, deriving power from the British Parliament. Such a parliament was put into place in 1999, after a referendum in 1997. It grants Scotland specific powers, and some limited self-determination.

Current issues


Recently (2003 onwards), self-determination has become a topic of some debate in Australia in relation to Aborigines (indigenous Australians). In the 1970s, the Aboriginal community approached the Federal Government and requested the right to administer their own communities. This encompassed basic local government functions, ranging from land dealings and management of community centres to road maintenance and garbage collection, as well as setting education programmes and standards in their local schools.

Israel and Palestine

The right to self-determination as outlined in the public international law is often referenced by both sides in the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflictPalestinians assert a nationalist right to self-determination that has been and is currently hindered by Israeli policies in the regions it militarily occupies. Israel was, in turn, formed under the right to self-determination as outlined in the U.N. Charter, and still regularly cites this principle in its defense against anti-Zionist criticisms that argue or imply that Israel is not a legitimate state within the international community.

British support for Zionism was originally advanced by Lord Palmerston ,who was a very successful means by which European Jewry would establish a colonial outpost in the Middle East that would be European in culture, grateful to European power, and therefore friendly to European interests. This purpose was in mind when the Mandate of Palestine was formed, and, according to Israel's critics, remains effective to this day. Hence Western support for Israel is commonly criticized by Palestinians as being colonialist in nature, and likewise Israel itself is criticized as being colonial both culturally and functionally. These criticisms continue despite Israeli claims to territorial precedence homeland, the immigration of Jews from communities in the Middle East and North Africa, and the anti-colonialist character of the self-determination principle. According to Freedom House, Israel is the only liberal democracy in the Middle East. However, Freedom House notes that its governance in areas of the West Bank falls short in terms of political and civil liberties.

Jordan occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem (including the Old City) and Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip from 1949 through 1967. Throughout those years, the King of Jordan had annexed the West Bank, providing its residents with citizenship, but not with the right of mobility across the Jordan River. The king forbid the use of the word "Palestine" on official documents. The Jordanian position on this was that historically the East and West Bank had been one cultural entity and thus one nationality though Palestinians dispute this. This led to open fighting between Palestinian refugees and the Jordanian government in 1970. However, in 1988, the Jordanian government relinquished its claim to the West Bank. Egypt never annexed the Gaza, and denied its residents of citizenship and did not allow its residents to move into Egypt or anywhere else. Despite this Egypt was not subject to a rebellion. In fact, the Palestine Liberation Organization was created in 1964 by the Arab League in Cairo, Egypt, and was controlled by and large by the Egyptian government. Neither country attempted to relieve the refugee crisis (although Jordan did alleviate this somewhat by granting Palestinians citizenship) and neither allowed (to different extents) self-determination in these territories.

The PLO stated its goal to be the destruction of the State of Israel through armed struggle, and replacing it with an "independent Palestinian state" between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Israelis argue this would deny self-determination by the millions of Israelis now living there. However, support for the PLO's radical position may arguably be the result of Israel's deprivation of self-determination of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza; furthermore, Hamas, which is now the elected government of the Palestinians has dropped the call for the destruction of Israel from its charter in its quest for Palestinian self-determination [1]


Further information: Kosovo status process
The province is the subject of a long-running political and territorial dispute between the Serbian (and previously, the Yugoslav) government and Kosovo's largely ethnic-Albanian population. Kosovo Albanians are currently trying to seek independence from Serbia on the grounds of self-determination. In any officially-sanctioned referendum it is likely a majority of ethnic Albanians would favour independence, whilst the minority 200,000 non-Albanians (mostly Serbs) would oppose it. International negotiations began in 2006 to determine the final status of Kosovo.

Jammu and Kashmir

Insurgent groups in Indian-controlled Kashmir (the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir) such as Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hizbul Mujahideen are currently trying to seek full Independence for the whole region from India on the claim of its right to self-determination as an Islamic State. Both the insurgents and the Indian Armed forces stand accused of Human rights violations, with some insurgent groups conducting a policy of ethnic cleansing of Hindus in Kashmir, and the Indian army being accused of violating human rights of ordinary citizens of Kashmir.[2]

Puerto Rico

Since 1972, the U.N. Decolonization Committee has called for Puerto Rico's decolonization and for the U.S. to recognize the island's right to self-determination and independence. Most recently, the Decolonization Subcommittee called for the United Nations General Assembly to review the political status of Puerto Rico, a power reserved by the 1953 Resolution. [3]

Sri Lanka

Tamil ethnic minority group in Sri Lanka is seeking an Independent Tamil state out of Sri Lanka. Ongoing war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil groups has claimed thousands of lives including Tamil civilians and many political leaders. Norwegian peace talks have failed to achieve peace in this region, and the war continues.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland offers a complex demonstration of the problems of self-determanition. In this case it is establishing who is eligible to vote in any such referendum. A majority (54%) of the population of Northern Ireland still favours continued union with Great Britain. However, there are claims by Irish nationalists that any vote should be taken by the whole of Ireland. This would most likely result in Northern Ireland joining the rest of Ireland in a 32-county Republic.

A referendum in 1973 showed overwhelming support for the union with Great Britain, but this was boycotted by most nationalists.


Movements are pushing for independence amongst the Basques, Catalans and Galicians


Declaring independence in 1991 after the collapse of central authority in Somalia and its descent into civil war. Somaliland claims to be the successor state of the briefly independent State of Somaliland which declared independence after the dissolvment of the colony of British Somaliland in 1960.

It has not yet been recognised by any states despite the establishment of a stable democracy in one of the must turbulent parts of the continent.


Taiwan is still the focus of a self-determination dispute in the East Asia region. The government of the People's Republic of China claims the entirety of Taiwan as its territory. However, Taiwanese independence advocates argue that there no legal claim over Taiwan as no legally binding treaty ever transferred sovereignty to China following World War II. At the same time, the de facto government of Taiwan, the Republic of China still officially claims the mainland and several other areas and denies the legitimacy of the People's Republic. However, in practice, this claim essentially died off through the 1990s and is no longer pressed by Taiwan's elected government.

Turkish Cypriots

Since 1974, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (a state recognized by Turkey only), has been governing the northern part of the Mediterranean island, Cyprus. The Turkish Cypriot community used their right of self-determination after the Greek Cypriots and Greek junta jeopardized their mutual existence on the island and their partnership in the Republic of Cyprus.

United States

The colonisation of the North American continent and its Native American population has been the source of legal battles since the early 1800s. The Westward push of European-American settlers eventually brought about the destruction of most Native American cultures, and what few remained were reduced to living on reservations. These had been given a certain degree of autonomy, within the United States federal government, which allows for their exclusion from various national legal restrictions.

There is an active Hawaiian sovereignty movement which aims at rectifying the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in the late 19th century which resulted in the incorporation of Hawaii into the United States. They hold that self-determination was never granted to native Hawaiians after the overthrow and thus a large measure of autonomy or independence should be granted to Hawaii. Opponents allege that this would violate the self-determination rights of the non-Hawaiian majority living in Hawaii now.

Almost all historians agree that the South was fighting for self-determination during the American Civil War.

Further, there have at times been calls for local self-determination by ethnic minority communities. For example, the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican internationalist group founded in Lincoln Park, Chicago in 1968, called not only for independence for Puerto Rico but also for neighborhood empowerment within cities in the continental United States, which they characterized as self-determination in every barrio or neighborhood.

Western Sahara

Formerly Spanish Sahara, after the withdrawal of Spanish rule in 1975 an invasion by Morocco and Mauritania defeated the wishes of the indigenous population who supported the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).

Morocco continues to refuse to accept any kind of referendum, and has continually spoken of autonomy, through it has never revealed concrete plans for this either. UN attempts to organise a plebicite to settle the situation have floundered in recent years. The SADR receives the backing of Algeria, and is a member of the African Union. It is currently recognised by 43 states. 22 others have withdrawn recognition.

See also


1. ^ Devine, T.M (1999), The Scottish Nation 1700–2000, P.9, ISBN 0-14-023004-1 "From that point on anti-union demonstrations were common in the capital. In November rioting spread to the south west, that stranglehold of strict Calvinism and covenanting tradition. The Glasgow mob rose against union sympathisers in disturbances which lasted intermittently for over a month"
2. ^ Alexander Evans, A departure from history: Kashmiri Pandits, 1990–2001, Contemporary South Asia (Volume 11, Number 1, 1 March 2002, pp. 19-37)

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Self-determination theory (SDT) is a general theory of human motivation concerned with the development and functioning of personality within social contexts. The theory focuses on the degree to which human behaviors are volitional or self-determined - that is, the degree to which
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right is the legal or moral entitlement to do or refrain from doing something or to obtain or refrain from obtaining an action, thing or recognition in civil society. Compare with privilege, or a thing to which one has a just claim.
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A nation is a form of cultural or social community. Nationhood is an ethical and philosophical doctrine and is the starting point for the ideology of nationalism. Members of a "nation" share a common identity, and usually a common origin, in the sense of ancestry, parentage or
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Sovereignty is the exclusive right to complete political (e.g. legislative, judicial, and/or executive) control over an area of governance, people, or oneself. A sovereign is the supreme lawmaking authority, subject to no other.
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A state is a political association with effective dominion over a geographic area. It usually includes the set of institutions that claim the authority to make the rules that govern the people of the society in that territory, though its status as a state often depends in part on
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referendum (plural referendums or referenda), ballot question, or plebiscite (from Latin plebiscita, originally a decree of the Concilium Plebis
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ethnic group or ethnicity is a population of human beings whose members identify with each other, usually on the basis of a presumed common genealogy or ancestry.[1] Ethnicity is also defined from the recognition by others as a distinct group[2]
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International law can refer to three distinct legal disciplines.
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Territorial integrity is the principle under international law that nation-states should not attempt to promote secessionist movements or to promote border changes in other nation-states. Conversely it states that border changes imposed by force are acts of aggression.
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Non-intervention is the norm in international relations that one state cannot interfere in the internal politics of another state, based upon the principles of state sovereignty and self-determination


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Decolonization refers to the undoing of colonialism, the establishment of governance or authority through the creation of settlements by another country or jurisdiction.
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Colonialism is the extension of a nation's sovereignty over territory beyond its borders by the establishment of either settler colonies or administrative dependencies in which indigenous populations are directly ruled or displaced.
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Imperialism is the forceful extension of a nation's authority by territorial conquest establishing economic and political domination of other nations that are not its own colonies.


Imperialism is the domination of one people by another people.
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The term collective rights refers to rights which are held and exercised by all the people collectively, or by specific subsets of the people. They stand in contrast to individual rights which are held only by individuals.
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tyrant is a single ruler holding vast, if not absolute power through a state or in an organization. The term carries connotations of a harsh and cruel ruler who places his/her own interests or the interests of a small oligarchy over the best interests of the general population
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A state is a political association with effective dominion over a geographic area. It usually includes the set of institutions that claim the authority to make the rules that govern the people of the society in that territory, though its status as a state often depends in part on
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John Stuart Mill (20 May 1806 – 8 May 1873), British philosopher, political economist, civil servant and Member of Parliament, was an influential liberal thinker of the 19th century.
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On Liberty is a philosophical work in the English language by 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill, first published in 1859. To the Victorian readers of the time it was a radical work, advocating moral and economic freedom of individuals from the state.
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Wilsonianism or Wilsonian are words used to describe a certain type of ideological perspectives on foreign policy. The term comes from the ideology of American President Woodrow Wilson, and his famous Fourteen Points that he believed would help create world peace if
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