Introduction / Definition: 

At its most basic, the principle of self-determination can be defined as a community's right to choose its political destiny. This can include choices regarding the exercise of sovereignty and independent external relations (external self-determination) or it can refer to the selection of forms of government (internal self-determination). The fundamental concept of self-determination-the right to choose-has its roots in the American and French revolutions in the eighteenth century with their emphasis on justice, liberty, and freedom from authoritarian rule. It found its most prominent expressions following World Wars I and II. In the aftermath of the First World War, self-determination was perceived to be Woodrow Wilson's guiding principle for redrawing European and world maps to establish a new, just order. Following World War II, self-determination was enshrined in the United Nations Charter, initiating its transformation into a legal right under international law. In practice, this notion provided the justification and impetus for de-colonization and is often conflated with independence. More recently, the term is associated with struggles by groups within a state for greater autonomy or independence-primarily ethno-nationalist claims or counter-reactions to oppression or authoritarianism.

Current academic debates and international diplomacy tend to emphasize internal self-determination in proposals for resolving claims, often shying away from the term altogether to avoid mistakenly conflating every question of self-determination with a quest for state-shattering independence. In law as in theory, the principle itself refers to the right to choose and should neither privilege nor dismiss specific outcomes. Discussion continues in academic, legal, as well as diplomatic circles as to the delineation of the 'self'-in other words, who are the peoples entitled to self-determination-and what is implied or allowed by the application of 'determination.' Fundamental differences in meaning hinge upon how circumscribed one interprets each of these components: whether the exercise of self-determination is restricted to certain defined groups (e.g., colonial or oppressed peoples) or necessarily implies independent statehood as the ideal outcome. Contemporary understanding of the principle defines self-determination as the right to choose for all peoples, but with flexibility as to the application of that right in the context of particular claims.

Historical Evolution: 

From the nationalist wars of the nineteenth century to the reunification of Germany after the Cold War, self-determination has been responsible for shattering large empires and small states alike as well as for state formation and state-building. Since World War I, self-determination has acquired a classical or Wilsonian meaning: a community striving for full independence and sovereignty at the expense of the existing state(s) and other communities. In this sense, self-determination automatically entails a change in existing sovereign boundaries and also implies the right to form a government and administration according to that community's wishes. Historically, this notion of self-determination served the assertion of statehood and national identity at the expense of large multinational empires (e.g., Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and czarist Russian); contributed to the dissolution of colonial empires; and, more recently, fueled the unification of Germany, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire, and the breakup of Czechoslovakia. Struggles for autonomy and secession have been and continue to be a source of conflict in Africa, Asia, and Europe-witness the ongoing self-determination conflicts in places as diverse as Chechnya, Kosovo, Sri Lanka, and Darfur.

Though its roots lie in the ideals of the American and French Revolutions, self-determination as a political concept was initially articulated as a tool for maintaining order and spreading democratic ideals in the early twentieth century. Prior to the Bolshevik revolution, Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin espoused self-determination as an anti-imperialist measure necessary for world peace.[1] Woodrow Wilson conceived of self-determination as a basis for offering the peoples of the Austro-Hungarian empire more rights and for rebuilding order on new, more democratic principles after World War I. Following on the tenets of his Fourteen Points speech, Wilson insisted upon self-determination for peoples ruled by the Germans and the Habsburgs. These demands were incorporated into the Versailles peace process, though still under the rubric of the existing colonial order to satisfy great power interests. Through Wilson's inducement to break apart multinational empires and replace them with nation-states at the center of a more peaceful and democratic global order, the essence of this vision of self-determination emphasized the link between peoples (nations) and independent states. Two decades later, Adolf Hitler infused self-determination with a negative connotation by using the concept to justify the consolidation of German-speaking territories to gain "Volksraum." In contemporary usage, the principle of national independence associated with Wilsonian self-determination has morphed into a battle cry for separatist groups around the globe.

Over the course of the twentieth century, self-determination evolved from a general political principle into a legal right. The United Nations (UN) Charter offered the first step in the transformation to legality by proclaiming as one of its purposes the promotion of "friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples." (UN Charter, Article 1.2) Subsequent development of international customary law, as exemplified by UN resolutions and declarations as well as state practice, set the parameters for de-colonization following World War II on the basis of self-determination. United Nations resolutions in the 1950s presented the right to self-determination as a prerequisite for the enjoyment of human rights and an idea deserving respect from all member states. The 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (UN General Assembly Resolution 1514, 14 December 1960) asserted that continued subjugation and denial of human rights is an impediment to world peace and cooperation; thus, "All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic social and cultural development." Subsequent UN instruments-including the 1966 International Human Rights Covenants and the 1970 Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States-further clarified and expanded this emerging legal right. These texts are considered definitive both as the basis for international law on the subject as well as for setting the parameters for further application, discussion, and development of the principle. The common Article 1.1 of the two 1966 Covenants repeats the language of the 1960 Declaration above [2] and then calls upon States Parties to promote the realization of this right.

Perhaps the most expansive articulation of the right to self-determination appears in the 1970 Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, an exposition of UN Charter principles including self-determination deemed fundamental to international law. The preamble places of self-determination firmly in the context of international security: the denial of self-determination is described as a threat to peace and security and the exercise of self-determination as the basis of peaceful international relations:

"Convinced that the subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a major obstacle to the promotion of international peace and security, Convinced that the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples constitutes a significant contribution to contemporary international law, and that its effective application is of paramount importance for the promotion of friendly relations among States, based on respect for the principle of sovereign equality..."

The section on the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples elaborates on what this right entails in the contemporary international system. This passage is considered an authoritative source for explaining the fundamental meaning and application of self-determination:

"By virtue of the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples enshrined in the Charter, all peoples have the right freely to determine, without external interference, their political status and to pursue their economic, social and cultural development, and every State has the duty to respect this right in accordance with the provisions of the Charter."

It further specifies the obligations of states to promote the principle as a duty to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms in keeping with the UN Charter. It provides open-ended guidance on the application of self-determination, listing independence, free association with another state or "the emergence into any other political status freely determined by a people" as illustrations of proper modes for implementing the right of self-determination.

During the Cold War, the bipolar structure of the international system and the rising influence of the non-aligned movement limited discussions of self-determination primarily to "salt-water decolonization" (independence for overseas colonies that were ethnically distinct and geographically separate from the center), which seemingly limited the application of the right to certain types of claimant groups. [3] But most of the non-self-governing territories mentioned explicitly in the UN Charter, the 1960 Declaration, and other legal instruments have exercised their right to self-determination and many have become independent states. In contrast, many of today's claims concern secessionist-minded groups within established states-often ethno-nationalist in nature. In the post-Cold War system, many groups see a renewed opportunity to assert their separate identity on the international stage and use the rhetoric of self-determination to articulate and inspire those desires. Lacking a generally accepted approach to these non-colonial claims, the international community's response has frequently been erratic and untimely, often failing to stop disputes from turning violent and threatening individuals, states, and regional security.

From this evolution one can discern the widely accepted essence of self-determination-the right to shape one's political destiny-as well as the perceived tension between self-determination and territorial integrity. After elaborating on the duties of states not to deny peoples' right of self-determination, the abovementioned passage of the 1970 Declaration concludes with a caution against self-determination as an invitation to disrupt the existing state system:

"Nothing in the foregoing paragraphs shall be construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent States conducting themselves in compliance with the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples as described above and thus possessed of a government representing the whole people belonging to the territory without distinction as to race, creed, or colour. Every state shall refrain from any action aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and territorial integrity of any other State or country."

No rules exist to specify exactly how to balance these seemingly contradictory principles: allow all peoples to determine their political future, but don't disrupt rightfully existing states and borders in doing so. To allow unlimited choice in political destiny would mean, at least in theory, that states can be redesigned and boundaries redrawn. To argue for the supremacy of territorial integrity in all situations would deny the right of self-determination for peoples who have freely chosen independence. Scholars and practitioners thus separate the principle (the right to choose) from its application across time and in specific cases-with no predetermined outcomes. The tension between self-determination and territorial integrity is hence mediated according to the particulars in each case.

[1] Stalin: "Marxism and the National Question" (1913); Lenin "Theses on the Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination" (1916); 26 October 1917 Decree on Peace. See Richard Falk, "Self-Determination Under International Law: The Coherence of Doctrine Versus the Incoherence of Experience" in Wolfgang Danspeckgruber, ed., The Self-Determination of Peoples: Community, Nation, and State in an Interdependent World (Boulder, Co: Lynne Rienner, 2002) p. 39 and Antonio Cassese, Self-determination of Peoples: A Legal Reappraisal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) pp. 14-19.
[2] "All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic social and cultural development.
[3] In response to states' obligation to submit information on the non-self governing territories under their control, the General Assembly passed Resolution 1541 (15 December 1960), which set out the criteria for defining the "self" in this context (namely, those territories which were both geographically separate and ethnically or culturally unique from the ruling authority), the means by which the right of self-determination could be exercised (informed and impartial democratic processes), and the acceptable results of such a process with regard to these territories (creation of a sovereign state, free association with another state, or integration with an existing state).

Theoretical Implications: 

Given the legal weight of self-determination as well as its symbolic power as a beacon of freedom, leaders of claimant groups frequently use the term self-determination to try to capitalize on international sympathies-attempting to internationalize issues by linking their situation or goals to international law and precedent in the rhetoric of "neo-colonialism." However, the international community eschews such linkages, often associating demands for self-determination solely with separatist tendencies. The political ramifications of rewarding every claimant group a separate right to self-determination-in the Wilsonian sense of independence-are potentially destabilizing in a world where boundaries overlap and ethnicities mingle. Despite Woodrow Wilson's vision for a more harmonious world order after World War I, the ideal of having an individual state for every nation is unachievable without widespread violence and bloodshed. Instead, many statesmen and scholars alike would agree that self-determination is a loaded term often identified closely with secession and thus can be considered extremely destructive. State representatives often avoid the word altogether or deliberately emphasize its negative connotations. The process of international recognition, by other states and the United Nations, offers another threshold limiting the chances of full independence as a result of classic self-determination. Recent scholarship and practice suggest an emphasis on self-determination as a more dynamic concept-ongoing accommodation of all groups in the political process-rather than as a question of acquiring the status of a new, internationally-recognized independent state.

In the fields of international law and political philosophy, some scholars place contemporary self-determination claims in the context of international human rights and good governance regimes. Discourse in the legal literature suggests that a post-colonial right to self-determination does exist and can be accommodated by current legal instruments, while several political philosophers advocate at least a remedial right to self-determination resulting in secession when serious human rights abuses have occurred over time. Recent debates have attempted to decouple formal legal sovereignty-recognition based on territorial control-from effective governance and the full benefits of sovereign statehood in the international system, which depend on a legitimate government as it is defined and accepted by the international community.[1] In these approaches, legitimacy implies adherence to international norms of human rights and emerging standards of democratic governance. Judging self-determination claims through a prism of legitimate governance suggests that a state has responsibilities to its domestic constituents-groups as well as individuals-for which it can be held internationally accountable. Failure by the state to adhere to these responsibilities can justify a self-determination claim; in extreme cases of oppression, secession may be justified.[2] However, in other cases alternative solutions may effectively satisfy a group's desire for increased autonomy through self-governance, asymmetric federalism, or minority rights regimes while preserving the established states and borders of the international system.

In a sense, the full realization of classical self-determination-secession, independence, and the recognition of new international boundaries-represents a dichotomy between the traditional perspective of a state-based international system during the Cold War and the emergence of a new world order characterized by interdependence and globalization. States are increasingly challenged on one hand by the pressure of greater education and contacts abroad, increased personal mobility, economic and strategic interdependence, and the real-time global media, and on the other hand by an emerging insistence upon traditional national or communal values in decision-making, culture, laws, and administration. Contrary to widespread assumption, the intensification of globalization has not diminished the frequency or violence of struggles for self-determination and secession. Though accepting increased economic and industrial interdependence, people are also eager to maintain communal and socio-cultural values and traditions-in particular, local language. This may be a counter-reaction to international interdependence and globalization, may emanate from observing secessionist precedents in geographically-proximate areas, or may be born out of a longstanding communal desire for greater freedom from central authorities. Heightened global mobility and interaction also enhance the role of diaspora in self-determination struggles. The fact that members of the ethnie afar are frequently the most fervent and defenders of its rights only spurs radicalization. Interdependence and technological globalization also increase the prominence of younger leaders inciting the struggle via the internet. On the other hand, in the post-9/11 era central authorities have increased arguments that self-determination movements have links with international terrorism and/or organized crime. Unfortunately, this perception effectively strengthens international and state opposition to the claim. The resultant tension makes the future development of the concept of self-determination less predictable and questions the general assumption of a reduced role of the state.

Thus, it is time for a thorough analysis of the classical concept of self-determination and the examination of its new role and meaning in the emerging global system. Contemporary scholarship and practice suggest that the search for self-determination and autonomy need not necessarily or automatically cause the breakup of sovereign states or change external boundaries. Other solutions may satisfy the aspirations of the community looking for greater independence while enabling the state to continue existence within its current boundaries. In addition, experience with self-determination crises has shown that the effects of a community seeking greater independence from the center cannot be considered in isolation from other communities within the state and region. Other communities may find precedent value in greater autonomy or successful secession, leading to a possible domino effect of secession and potential state collapse (e.g., in the Balkans in the 1990s). Members of the state majority community who suddenly find themselves the minority in a secessionist-minded region may initiate population movements, cause violence, or seek international security guarantees. Often, the community desiring independence has kin in other states within the region. The resolution of the original claim affects other states as well: spillover effects as other minorities seek to replicate their kin's success; implications for regional security if secessionists wish to join another state; and direct involvement of kin states in settlement negotiations. Thus, the struggle for self-determination is rarely a zero-sum game between one community and one central authority, but may have repercussions for other communities within the same state and in neighboring states as well.

[1] See, e.g., Francis M. Deng, et. al., eds. Sovereignty as Responsibility: Conflict Management in Africa (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1996); Fowler, Michael Ross and Julie Marie Bunck, Law, Power and the Sovereign State: The Evolution and Application of the Concept of Sovereignty (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995); The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, The Responsibility to Protect (Ottawa: International Development Research Center, 2002).

[2] See, e.g., Allen Buchanan, "Self-Determination and the Right to Secede." Journal of International Affairs 45:2 (Winter 1992): 347-365 and Robert McQuorodale, "Self-determination: A Human Rights Approach." International and Comparative Law Quarterly 43:4 (October 1994): 857-885.

Practical Applications: 

At the beginning of the 21st century, new self-determination struggles have emerged around the globe while other, long-simmering conflicts continue unabated. But each case harbors its own, very specific background and level of development and differs in intensity and orientation. Self-determination claims have unique root causes, encompassing a wide range of issues: economic or resource control, leadership interests, quests for sovereignty by communities with lingering interethnic problems, and historical grievance to name a few. To complicate analysis of self-determination, the international response to claims also exhibits diversity, from suppression and domination to deliberate manipulation and incitement as well as outside power involvement. The international community, still possessing the attitudes and strategies toward self-determination that were developed before and during the Cold War, has rarely responded effectively or consistently to contemporary claims. Neither has it acted in a timely fashion or shown much innovation.

A distinguishing feature of self-determination conflicts that makes them difficult to resolve is their inherent combination of three overlapping disputes over identity, territory, and governance. Self-determination claimant groups articulate the importance of a shared identity-often ethnic, tribal, or religious in origin-as the basis of their claim. This perception of distinct identity, and the desire to preserve that identity, compels the group to become or remain politically active. In other words, part of the inherent conflict concerns the distinctiveness of the group relative to other communities and to the central authorities and how that separate identity should actuate in the political process. Further complicating self-determination claims is the link between this identity of the group and a particular defined piece of territory. The claim may originate from a sense of entitlement to the territory-based on historical grievance, religious importance, or economic motivation-or a desire to be free of 'alien domination'. In either case, the claim necessarily involves a desire to control a parcel of land or share in the distribution of its resources. This could include secessionist or state-shattering claims (to take a piece of territory and leave an existing state), state-unifying claims (Germany, e.g.), the quest to unite a group by breaking away or annexing portions of other states (Kurdistan stretching across Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria), or issues of sovereignty over natural resources. Third, underlying the identity and territorial claims is a deep-rooted governance dispute: who rules and how. A self-determination claim often emanates from grievances linking identity with governance; for example, political or economic discrimination aimed at a certain ethnic, religious, tribal group. In certain self-determination struggles, economic hardships or perceived injustices have been persistent over long periods of time, lending explosive input into a community's search for independence. These feelings of repression or being permanently disadvantaged may spawn the desire within the group to govern themselves, free from the oppressive exercise of sovereignty by 'others.' To address self-determination claims, then, one must simultaneously resolve the underlying conflicts regarding identity, territory, and governance.

The work of the High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe exemplifies one positive-albeit limited in geographic scope-approach to self-determination in the contemporary era. Initiated as a conflict prevention mechanism, the office of the High Commissioner addresses minorities issues within states as a potential threat to the stability of states-members and to regional security. Rather than treating these cases under the rubric of classical self-determination, the HCNM's solutions favor integrating diversity and increasing participation within existing borders. While the HCNM infrequently uses the phrase self-determination with all its Wilsonian and de-colonization baggage, the emphasis in over a decade of practical applications has been on increasing internal self-determination while avoiding resort to external self-determination. In other words, as a exemplar of a contemporary approach to self-determination issues, the HCNM addresses underlying issues with a double-edged conflict prevention sword. To avert internal conflict from dissatisfied minorities, the HCNM encourages greater recognition of, dialogue with, and participation from the minority within the existing state, thereby addressing governance issues (see the Lund Recommendations on the Effective Participation of National Minorities in Public Life). This approach focuses on the group's identity and increasing internal self-determination. To prevent the regional and possible international ramifications attendant with changes in recognized international borders, the HCNM favors solutions that do not redraw boundaries: avoiding external self-determination by creatively defusing territorial issues. Married with increasing theoretical emphasis on the human rights-security nexus and the role of legitimate governance in conflict prevention, the HCNM's practical approach reflects an ongoing trend in contemporary understandings of self-determination: coupling minority rights and participation with preserving the territorial integrity of existing states to ward off both internal and external conflict. This broader approach of accommodating minorities without changing borders appears in several forms outside the purview of the HCNM as well: UN Working Group on National Minorities, peacebuilding efforts such as Kosovo.

Another practical solution that holds promise for satisfying the aspirations of the community looking for greater independence while enabling the state to continue existence within its sovereign boundaries is a combination of self-governance-maximum autonomy-and regional integration, underscored by the acceptance of multiple identities. This approach addresses both the desires of the group making the self-determination claim as well as broader international security concerns of great powers and other states who generally resist the creation of new states in the international system. Instead of secession of territorial division, this approach seeks to maximize a group's voice in political affairs without redrawing international borders, thus striking a theoretical balance between self-determination and territorial integrity. It addresses the underlying identity by promoting the group's identity within the context of multiple layers of identity: local, national, state, supranational. Attention to governance issues through enhanced autonomy balances with extraterritorial (regional) opportunities to mitigate territory issues. Such an adapted concept of the traditional self-determination could offer a safety valve for the community seeking autonomy while promising great economic advantages. In addition, it may also avoid the slippery slope toward independence that frequently leads to bloodshed and destruction.

These and other practical solutions highlight attempts to curtail the potential destructive power of self-determination by increasing the claimant group's political engagement. States support self-determination in theory, but need more predictability as to its application in practice. The UN debate over the 1994 Draft Convention on Self-Determination Through Self-Administration suggested a mechanism to make the process of addressing self-determination less ambiguous by delineating a legal-administrative process for making, debating, and adjudicating claims (still without predetermining specific outcomes). The key to resolving self-determination claims is to understand and address multiple layers of conflict in ways that promote the ideals of self-determination (the right to choose) as well as the related norms of human rights and territorial integrity. This necessitates accounting for the emotional appeal of national and local identity while avoiding oppressive political actions that foment violence and instability.