What is Self-Determination?

Why is the concept of Self-Determination so important?

Firstly, what is ‘self-determination’? Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it variously as:

Self-determined/Self-determination: Determined by oneself; Free choice of one’s own acts or states without external compulsion; Determination by the people of a territorial unit of their own future political status; Decisions made for oneself and/or one’s group without outside governance or influence; The rights for an individual, family, community or nation to make decisions for themselves.

Hence without the right to self-determination, marginalised groups, indigenous peoples and voiceless communities would not be considered to have any rights or be able to express these. In fact, the ideal of self-determination is usually agreed upon, in theory at least, but how it is played out in each situation, who the stakeholders are and why, and what significance their rights should be given are often hotly debated and never fully settled. We could get into discussion here on the rights of existing states and nations, and how far back in history should we go when considering original rights to sovereignty or land, but the bottom line is quite simple: Existing governments and those who currently hold all the legal, social, economic and financial reins are reluctant to share, and are usually very careful that ordinary people are not given enough power to usurp them, while paying lip service to freedom, self-determination and rights.

Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute mentions the concept of a continuum of self-determination, from internal self-determination [claim of rights which are not necessarily recognised by others] to external self-determination [full or partial international recognition of a group’s or nation’s rights to self-determine various aspects of their lives and organisation]. Read more here [accessed 01/09/2022], or download a copy here: https://drunemeton-nation.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/law.cornell.edu-Self-determination-international-law.pdf [PDF, 1 page].

In an article on Self-Determination, Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation [UNPO] note that:

Essentially, the right to self-determination is the right of a people to determine its own destiny. In particular, the principle allows a people to choose its own political status and to determine its own form of economic, cultural and social development.

Exercise of this right can result in a variety of different outcomes ranging from political independence through to full integration within a state. The importance lies in the right of choice, so that the outcome of a people’s choice should not affect the existence of the right to make a choice.

In practice, however, the possible outcome of an exercise of self-determination will often determine the attitude of governments towards the actual claim by a people or nation. Thus, while claims to cultural autonomy may be more readily recognized by states, claims to independence are more likely to be rejected by them.

Nevertheless, the right to self-determination is recognized in international law as a right of process (not of outcome) belonging to peoples and not to states or governments.

See: https://unpo.org/article/4957 [accessed 01/09/2022], or download a copy of the article here: https://drunemeton-nation.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/unpo.org-Self-determination.pdf [PDF, 3 pages].

Is there a right to self-determination?

Princeton University in their Encyclopedia Princetoniensis have analysed “Legal Aspects of Self-Determination” and come to the conclusion that although the right to self-determination for indigenous peoples is stated in various conventions, it is not always recognised in international law, principally because the integrity of existing sovereign, independent states is upheld as paramount.

This does not, however, change what has been accepted, in principle, at least, by The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007, which in Article 4 asserts that indigenous peoples,

in exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.”

See: https://pesd.princeton.edu/node/511 [accessed 23/08/2022], or download a copy of the article here: https://drunemeton-nation.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/pesd.princeton.edu-Self-Determination.pdf [PDF, 8 pages].

At the end of the day, ‘internal self-determination‘, loosely defined as “allowing a people broader control over their political, economic, social and cultural development, while stopping short of secession [from a ‘colonial’ power or existing state]” may be easier for a defined group of people to obtain, than ‘external self-determination‘, which includes the more complicated process of seceding from a power or state and forming a new nation or state. This article from Minority Rights discusses internal versus external self-determination and has compiled a useful list of instruments protecting the right to self-determination, relevant cases and references: https://minorityrights.org/law-and-legal-cases/self-determination/ [accessed 14/09/2022] – or download a copy here: https://drunemeton-nation.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/minorityrights.org-Self-determination.pdf [PDF, 3 pages].