Process by which a group of people, usually possessing a degree of political consciousness, form their own state and government. The idea evolved as a byproduct of nationalism. According to the UN charter, a people has the right to form itself into a state or to otherwise determine the form of its association with another state, and every state has the right to choose its own political, economic, social, and cultural systems. Moreover, the administering authorities of dependent territories are enjoined to ensure political advancement and the development of self-government in those territories.
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The revolt of the British colonists in North America has been defined as the first assertion of the right of national and democratic self-determination because of the explicit invocation of natural law, the natural rights of man and consent of, and sovereignty by, the people, ideas inspired particularly by John Locke’s writings. Thomas Jefferson furthered promoted the notion that the will of the people was supreme, especially through authorship of the Declaration of Independence which inspired Europeans throughout the 19th century. The French Revolution also was motivated by and legitimatized ideas of self-determination.
During the early 1800s most of the nations of South America achieved independence from Spain. The American public, organized groups and even Congressional resolutions, often supported such movements, especially the Greek War of Independence (1821-29) and the demands of Hungarian revolutionaries in 1848. However, such support never became official government policy. After the American Civil War the United States government opposed self-determination for the West Indian islands of Saint Thomas and Saint John in 1868, the Hawaiian Islands in 1868. By the conclusion of the Spanish-American War in 1899 the United States supported its annexation without the consent of the peoples the former Spanish colonies of Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines; it retained “quasi-suzerainty” over Cuba.
This presented a challenge to Wilson’s more limited demands. In January 1918 Wilson issued his Fourteen Points of January 1918 which, among other things, called for adjustment of colonial claims, as long as the interests of colonial powers had equal weight with the claims of subject peoples. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 led to Russia's exit from the war and the independence of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland. The end of the war led to the dissolution of the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire and the creation by the Allies of Czechoslovakia and the union of the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs and the Kingdom of Serbia as new states. However, this imposition of states where some nationalities (especially Poles, Czechs, and Serbs and Romanians) were given power over nationalities who disliked and distrusted them eventually helped lead to World War II. The defeated Ottoman empire was dissolved into the Republic of Turkey and several smaller nations, plus the new Middle east Allied “protectorates” of Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Yemen. The League of Nations was proposed as much as a means of consolidating these new states, as a path to peace.
During the 1920s and 1930s there were some successful movements for self-determination in the beginnings of the process of decolonization. In the Statute of Westminster the Great Britain granted independence to Canada, New Zealand, Newfoundland, the Irish Free State, the Commonwealth of Australia, and the Union of South Africa after the British parliament declared itself as incapable of passing laws over them without their consent. Egypt, Afghanistan and Iraq also achieved independence from Britain and Lebanon from France. Other efforts were unsuccessful, like the Indian independence movement. And Italy, Japan and Germany all initiated new efforts to bring certain territories under their control, leading to World War II.
However, the charter and other resolutions did not insist on full independence as the best way of obtaining self-government, nor did they include an enforcement mechanism. Moreover, nations were recognized by the legal doctrine of uti possidetis juris, meaning that old administrative boundaries would become international boundaries upon independence, even if they had little relevance to linguistic, ethnic, and cultural boundaries. Nevertheless, justified by the language of self-determination, between 1946 and 1960, the peoples of thirty-seven new nations freed themselves from colonial status in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The territoriality issue inevitably would lead to more conflicts and independence movements within many nations and challenges to the assumption that territorial integrity is as important as self-determination.
The Soviet Union’s successful post-war efforts to turn Eastern Germany and the countries of Eastern Europe into Soviet satellite states contrasted with decolonization. The additional success of communists in creating the People's Republic of China led to the Cold War with western nations. These nations became willing to support authoritarian governments as long as they remained anti-communist and began to suspect all self-determinations movements of being communist-inspired or controlled. Thus the United States entered into a 10 year war in Vietnam, taking over from French colonialists, and supported Portugal in its attempts to hold on to Angola. The Soviet Union also violated principles of self-determination by suppressing the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and the Prague Spring Czechoslovak reforms of 1968. It invaded Afghanistan to support an increasingly unpopular communist government assailed by local tribal groups.
The Cold War began to wind down after Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power in March 1985. With the cooperation of U.S. president Ronald Reagan, Gorbachev wound down the size of the Soviet Armed Forces and reduced nuclear arms in Europe, while liberalizing the economy. In 1989 in rapid succession, communist regimes collapsed in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Romania. In December 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president and the Soviet Union dissolved relatively peacefully into fifteen sovereign republics, all of which rejected communism and most of which adopted democratic reforms and free-market economies. Yugoslavia began a much more violent break up in 1990.
In an issue of Macquarie University Law Journal Associate professor Aleksandar Pavkovic and Senior Lecturer Peter Radan outlined current legal and political issues in self-determination. These include:
National self-determination challenges the principle of territorial integrity (or sovereignty) of states because it is the will of the people that makes a state legitimate. This implies a people should be free to choose their own state and its territorial boundaries. However, there are far more self-identified nations than there are existing states and there is no legal process to redraw state boundaries according to the will of these peoples.
Pavkovic and Radan describe three theories of international relations relevant to self-determination.
Allen Buchanan, author of seven books on self-determination and secession, supports territorial integrity as a moral and legal aspect of constitutional democracy. However, he also advances a “Remedial Rights Only Theory” where a group has “a general right to secede if and only if it has suffered certain injustices, for which secession is the appropriate remedy of last resort.” He also would recognize secession if the state grants, or the constitution includes, a right to secede.
Vita Gudeleviciute holds that in cases of non-self-governing peoples and foreign military occupation the principle of self-determination trumps that of territorial integrity. In cases where people lack representation by a state’s government, they also may be considered a separate people, but under current law cannot claim the right to self-determination. On the other hand, he finds that secession within a single state is a domestic matter not covered by international law. Thus there are no on what groups may constitute a seceding people.
In liberal constitutional democracies the principle of majority rule has dictated whether a minority can secede. In the United States Abraham Lincoln acknowledged that secession through constitutional amendment. The Supreme Court in Texas v White, held secession could occur “through consent of the States.” The British Parliament in 1933 held that Western Australia only could secede from Australia upon vote of a majority of the country as a whole; the previous two-thirds majority vote for secession via referendum in Western Australia was insufficient.
The Chinese Communist Party followed the Soviet Union in including the right of secession in its 1931 constitution in order to entice ethnic nationalities and Tibet into joining. However, once in control of the territories the party eliminated the right to secession from the constitution. The 1947 Constitution of the Union of Burma contained an express state right to secede from the union under a number of procedural conditions. It was eliminated in the 1974 constitution of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma (officially the “Union of Myanmar”). Burma still allows “local autonomy under central leadership.” As of 1996 the constitutions of Austria, Ethiopia, France, Singapore, Saint Kitts and Nevis Republics have express or implied rights to secession. Switzerland allows for the secession from current and the creation of new cantons. In the case of proposed Quebec separation from Canada the Supreme Court of Canada in 1998 ruled that only both a clear majority of the province and a constitutional amendment confirmed by all participants in the Canadian federation could allow secession.
The 2003 draft of the European Union Constitution allowed for the voluntary withdrawal of member states from the union. There was much discussion about such self-determination by minorities before the final document underwent the unsuccessful ratification process in 2005.
The border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State was based on the borders of existing counties and did not include all of historic Ulster. A Boundary Commission was established to consider re-drawing it. Its proposals, which amounted to a small net transfer to Northern Ireland, were leaked to the press and then not acted upon. In December 1925, the governments of the Irish Free State, Northern Ireland, and the United Kingdom agreed to accept the existing border. Most Irish Nationalists and Irish Republicans claim all of Northern Ireland and are not particularly interested in new borders.
The right of the creation of a Kurdish state was recognized following World War I in the Treaty of Versailles. However, the treaty was negated by force on behalf of the newly created Republic of Turkey. To date two separate Kurdish republics and one Kurdish Kingdom have declared sovereignty. The Republic of Ararat (Northern Kurdistan/Eastern Turkey), the Republic of Mehabad (Eastern Kurdistan/Iranian Kurdistan) and the Kingdom of Kurdistan (Southern Kurdistan/Northern Iraq), each of these fledgling states was crushed by military intervention. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan which currently holds the Iraqi presidency and the Kurdistan Democratic Party which governs the Kurdistan Regional Government both explicitly commit themselves to the development of Kurdish self-determination.
There is a democratic movement for independence led by the Hurriyet Conference in Jammu and Kashmir which want the application of the UN Resolutions calling for plebiscite in 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.
The colonization of the North American continent and its Native American population has been the source of legal battles since the early 1800s. Surviving Native American were resettled to separate tracts of land (reservations) which have been given a certain degree of autonomy within the United States federal government.
The Chicano Movement (or Chicano nation) seeks to recreate Aztlán, the mythical homeland of the Aztecs comprising the Southwestern United States which is home to the majority of Mexican Americans. They include those of mixed Native American and Latino descent (Mestizo). They base their claim on the fact that the U.S. seized the territory as a result of the Mexican-American War
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 Hawai'i into the United States.
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. In 2007 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. This follows the 1967 passage of a plebiscite Act that provided for a vote on the status of Puerto Rico with three status options: continued commonwealth, statehood, and independence. In the first plebscite the commonwealth option won with 60.4% of the votes but U.S. congressional committees failed to enact legislation to address the status issue. In subsequent plebiscites in 1993 and 1998 the status quo was upheld.
Many current U.S. state, regional and city secession groups use the language of self-determination. A 2008 Zogby International poll revealed that 22% of Americans believe that "any state or region has the right to peaceably secede and become an independent republic.