Self determination should be determined by the people
Many of the big international questions are about self determination and whether peoples or ‘stateless nations’ should have the right to have their own state, their own homeland. For example some of the biggest international crises involve the issue of palestinian independence, or Taiwan and Tibet, or Kurdistan. The people determining their own self determination would seem to be an unproblematic where we have democracy but even in such democratic countries seceeding is controversial, take for example the debates over Scotland and Spain’s determination to hold on to the basque country. The rights of peoples clashes with any idea of a sanctity of borders and sovereignty for nations that has become a key part of the international system. So should peoples be able to create their own state or decide what nation they belong to?
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One of the purposes of the United Nations is states in the UN Charter as being “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples”. Art. 1.1 of the International Human Rights Covenant provides “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”1 Leaving aside the issue of what defines a people it is the right to determine their political status that is most relevant. This formulation implies that the principle of self-determination is universal.
Would not work
If self determination was to be determined by the people it would lead to a complete reshaping of the international community, after all there are 350 potential nations in India alone.2 Of course many would opt to stay with India but there would be immense problems if some of them did opt for independence, especially if they were entirely dependent on India for access to the sea. Indeed this was how India managed to deny some of the princely states independence when India was first given independence itself. For this reason the United States denied the existence of a universal right of self determination until the 1970 Declaration on Friendly Relations accepting the right of self-determination while restricting it to the colonial context which is of course now mostly irrelevent.
If states/ regions have valid reasons for wanting independence then the parent country should NOT be allowed to blackmail that state/ region. Telling the people of the region that they can't survive without the parent country's help is essentially blackmail and it undermines people's freedom. The international community must ensure that such gross violation of human rights does not occur. In our world most countries are inter-dependent; that doesn't mean that one country has to bow down to another because they need their help. International co-operation is necessary and there are organisations such as the WTO that ensure that nations co-operate.
The valid reasons for which regions are justified in wanting independence from parent countries include: 1.if the people of that region are being oppressed by the country that it is a part of; 2. the region's resources are being drained by the central government but the government shows no intention of implementing development work in the region; or if 3. the ideologies and culture of the region/state is completely different from the rest of the country.
Internal self determination
Internal self-determination is “the right to authentic self-government… the right for a people really and freely to chose its on political and economic regime” in effect full autonomy, including the right for a minority not to be oppressed but within another state. It is this, perhaps lesser form of self determination that the people should have the option to chose if they so wish. So to take Scotland as an example it was part of what was a very centralised unitary government with very limited powers locally or regionally for almost three hundred years but in 1997 with ‘devolution’ opted by referendum to have its own Parliament which has powers over a range of areas such as agriculture, education, environment, health, home affairs, and justice however its tax raising powers are limited.
Self determination is in conflict with the principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity of states. In the same resolutions that emphasised the rights of self-determination the General Assembly denied a right of secession. Thus “Any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” Not surprisingly states that are already in existance do not like the idea that others should be able to break away and declare independence just because they have a different nationality. There are many multi-ethnic states for whom this would pose a threat. Any country which has a minority could potentially have problems with the possibility of the minority wanting its own state or to break away and join a neighbouring state. No state can therefore support self determination for fear that others will use the principle against it.
It is a failing of the General Assembly that they have not yet come up with a set of criteria under which a region deserves to be a candidate for secession. It is painfully obvious that some regions deserve statehood. Tibet for example is a region that has been under the repressive and unwelcome control of the Chinese regime and the many human rights violations that China has committed there has convinced many that Tibet should be independent. However with the lack of a consensus in the UN, Tibet can't pursue its cause.
It is true that if Tibet secedes from China then other Chinese regions that have misgivings with the government will also want to secede; but the UN consensus shall decide in the end whether their claims are valid or not.
It is to be noted that the consensus, if it comes into existence, doesn't really undermine people's rights to self-determination; it simply puts it under a legal framework.
What do you think?