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close this bookEthnicity and Power in the Contemporary World (UNU, 1996, 298 pages)
close this folder1. Governance and conflict resolution in multi-ethnic societies
View the document(introductory text...)
View the document1 Governance, ethnicity, and conflict resolution
View the document2 The role of the state
View the document3 The concept of self-determination
View the document4 Governance and conflict resolution in multi-ethnic societies
View the document5 International responses and mechanisms

3 The concept of self-determination

The right to self-determination remains one of the most intractable and difficult problems to be addressed by the international community. Many legal formulas have sought to define the existence of the right to self-determination, to define who constitutes a people and who has a right to a separate existence. The subject has been the basis for contention and war.

In a comprehensive analysis of the right to self-determination, Aureliu Cristescu wrote:

It is clear that the relevant provisions of the Charter have been interpreted in an increasingly progressive spirit over the years. Today, it is generally recognized that the concept of self-determination entails legal rights and obligations and that a right of self-determination definitely exists. (Special Rapporteur..., 1981)

With two exceptions, South Africa and Palestine, colonial and alien domination was treated as a phenomenon that applied only where the dominator was European. There is nothing in the Charter or the Covenants, however, that restricts the definition to colonial and subject peoples. The Charter refers in general terms to the development of "friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples." The Covenants assert that "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. "

Some of the problems associated with the current state of affairs have been identified as follows:

1. The United Nations has not established any formal procedures for adjudicating claims to self-determination. The Committee of 24, the Decolonisation Committee, entertains representations only on behalf of peoples whose territories they have listed, all of which are dependencies or former dependencies of European powers. But the Committee has no mechanism for examining claims from persons or organizations claiming to represent peoples aspiring to the right of self-determination, let alone of assessing them according to a set of agreed criteria.

2. A distinction is made in practice between so-called "salt-sea" imperialism, where the dominating and the dominated are separated by hundreds of miles, and "local" imperialism, where the two peoples are immediate neighbours. It has been assumed until very recently that peoples locked together within a state must remain so linked indefinitely. This means that many cases of "internal colonialism" do not come under the purview of any international body.

3. The right to self-determination is treated essentially as a political right, rather than one of international law.

The current discussion is taking place in the context of a new situation. The disintegration of the Soviet Union provides new impetus to the debate, in that within the Commonwealth of Independent States the right to self-determination has not only been exercised by republics but is also a point of contention within the republics themselves. It is highly probable that current experiences associated with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia will have ramifications beyond their borders. There is no shortage of other empires or quasi-empires which have imposed internal colonialism and subjected peoples to national oppression.

In the debate on the right to self-determination, useful distinctions have been attempted between peoples who have the right to secession and minorities who have the right to protection within a given state. The protection of minorities has been a subject of great contention and debate, but attempts are being made to monitor states' performance. Standards are being established, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, adopted on 18 December 1992. Regional organizations such as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) have also developed their own standards and principles governing minority protection. However, there is still a long way to go between declaration and practice, and mechanisms need to be developed for monitoring and obtaining compliance by states.

The question which has not been answered is: how will it be determined exactly what constitutes a minority and what constitutes a people? Is this to be determined solely by the individual state and only internationalized after gross violations have been committed or when refugee flows become unacceptable to neighboring countries? Or should there be bodies which can adjudicate and make decisions on this vexing question? Those who argue for an international body to adjudicate self-determination would say that there needs to be a framework for making such decisions. Subject peoples need not have to undergo violence and bloodshed before their case is heard.

Recently there has been a proposal for the appointment of a High Commissioner for Self-Determination, whose function would be to look at claims and report on them in the light of factors which might include the following:

- previous history of statehood or existence as a separate territorial entity;

- ethnicity, language, religion, culture;

- existence of special institutions;

- manifestations of the will to a separate identity.

The High Commissioner could refer cases to a Committee on Self Determination. The Decolonisation Committee that was set up to adjudicate on former colonies could be given the mandate to address new claims. Such a body may be able to adjudicate and give fair and evenhanded judgments based on the establishment of clear principles and norms.

On the other hand, some argue for a case-by-case approach. They are apprehensive of creating an epidemic, where fresh claims are made for secession without considering alternative arrangements such as internal autonomy, federalism, confederation, and minority protection. It may well be that the complexity of the situation requires a case-by-case approach. The weakness of this argument, however, is that it does not offer an institutional arrangement by which this can be achieved. Whatever the merits of these approaches, it is clear that today the issue of who constitutes a people and who has the right to independence is one of the most important to be addressed by the world community.

3.1 Democratization and self-determination

The paradox is that democratization creates the space for ethnic revival and religious fundamentalism. Only under conditions of democracy do such movements become public issues. The resurgence of ethnic and nationality claims may expand the basis for democracy by providing for adequate representation and devolution, but it seems that centralized unitary states are not prepared to give an inch, except through confrontation and violence. In this sense the resurgence of ethnicity and religious extremism pose a major challenge to the global expansion of democracy. Both these visions still have the capability to challenge democracy from below, but they may be counterbalanced by other factors, such as a large middle class or a diffused professional cadre committed to stability and secularism.