Why The Concept Of Self-Determination Is Flawed


United Nations Geneva (by Henry Mühlpfordt via Wikimedia Commons)

by Aris Teon

After the Second World War, self-determination became a guiding principle of the United Nations and of decolonization. Western powers accepted the fact that they should grant colonies political independence, and a large number of new states was established across Asia and Africa.

However, while the break-up of colonial empires into new states was encouraged on the basis of self-determination, secession of parts of states that were not under colonial rule was viewed with suspicion.

During the entire period between 1947 and 1991 there was only one instance of secession, when Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan in 1971. According to Margaret Moore, in the Cold War period “the superpowers were committed to upholding existing state boundaries, and they encouraged the development of international law and practice in which borders were viewed as permanent–not negotiable–features of the international state system” (Margaret Moore, ed., National Self-Determination and Secession, 1998, p. 1).

After the end of the Cold War, the consensus on the preservation of borders collapsed. Independence movements gained momentum in various parts of the world (Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom, Canada, Turkey, Sudan, Yugoslavia etc.). Some of these movements, such as the Quebec independence movement, existed as early as in the 1960s, while others, such as the Italian Lega Nord movement for the independence of the North, developed during the 1970s and gained popular support in the 1980s and 1990s.

But what does self-determination mean? When is it justified? And does it constitute a legal ground for secession?

We shall argue that self-determination as a concept is highly contradictory and incoherent. The term self-determination used to refer to ethnic groups (after WWI), and to colonized peoples (after WWII). In the first case, the ideal of self-determination failed. In the latter, it succeeded. However, after decolonization was completed, the principle of self-determination was once again appropriated by nationalist movements and risks to bring the world back to the situation of chaos and division that existed between 1919 and 1945.


The Concept Of Self-Determination


On February 11, 1918, US President Woodrow Wilson delivered a speech at a joint session of Congress. “National aspirations,” he said, “must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. ‘Self-determination’ is not a mere phrase. It is an imperative principle of actions which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril.”

But what did Wilson mean by ‘peoples’ and ‘self-determination’? An analysis of his famous 14 points speech given a month earlier appears to suggest that his understanding of self-determination was based on ethnic and racial identity.

For instance, point 6 of the speech states that a “readjustment of the frontiers of Italy should be effected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.” Point 11 says that “the relations of the several Balkan states to one another [shall be] determined by friendly counsel along historically established lines of allegiance and nationality.”

In point 12 Wilson argued that the “turkish portion of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured … autonomous development.” According to point 13, an “independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations.”

It seems clear that Wilson’s thinking was imbued with the nationalist and racial beliefs of his time. Let us not forget that the ideas of race and ethnicity were widepsread in the US as well as in Europe. For example, the US completely banned immigration from China on ethnic-cultural grounds and enforced race segregation.

But the reality was that most states in Europe were multinational, and redrawing borders across ethnic-linguistic lines proved to be an impossible undertaking.

For instance, the border region between Italy and Yugoslavia (called Julian March) was annexed by Italy after the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. However, the population of the Julian March was mixed: there were Italian-speaking people (mostly in the cities), Slovenian-speaking people and Croatian-speaking people. Because the concept of the ‘nation-state’ did not allow for multiculturalism, ethnic tensions rose between these different groups, who all claimed the same piece of land as their exclusive ‘home’.

The Italian Fascist state suppressed for decades Slavic-speaking people and tried to force them to ‘assimilate’ by prohibiting the use of their language and even encouraging them to ‘Italianise’ their surnames. Nationalism taught people to think of borders as lines demarcating different peoples, while in reality different peoples often shared the same territories. After the end of the Second World War, the Julian March was split between Italy and Yugoslavia. This resulted in the ethnic cleansing of Italian-speaking peoples in the region, a retribution for the way they had oppressed their neighbours for two decades.

Another example is the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey, which led to the expulsion of 1.5 million Greeks from Anatolia and of around 500,000 Muslims from Greece. The “exchange” was agreed upon by the two governments at a convention signed in Lausanne in order to create homogeneous national states in areas that had been multicultural for centuries.

Wilson’s principle of self-determination encouraged nationalistic tensions and ultimately failed to provide for a safe and stable post-war settlement. In December 1918 Wilson’s Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, presciently remarked that self-determination was a phrase “simply loaded with dynamite” and worried that it would “breed discontent, disorder, and rebellion.”

After the Second World War, the principle of self-determination became once again central to the political strategy of the Allies, but in a different way. While Wilson conceived of self-determination as a right of ethnic groups, in the post-WWII period it referred mainly to multi-ethnic societies under colonial rule (Moore 1998, p. 3).

Article 2 of the United Nations Charter states that nations should develop “friendly relations … based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.”

However, once again, the UN Charter failed to define the term ‘peoples’ or ‘self-determination’. As a result, the meaning of self-determination and the right to secession that may derive from it have become controversial topics in international law.

The notion of self-determination appears “imprecise and ill defined” and scholars have have so far been unable to reach a consensus as to its definition (see Emilio J. Cárdenas and Marîa Fernanda Cañás:: The Limits of Self-Determination, in The Self-Determination of Peoples: Community, Nation, and State in an Interdependent World, ed. Wolfgang Danspeckgruber, 2002, p. 102).

Initially the UN implicitly understood self-determination as being the guiding principle for decolonization. But when colonial empires disappeared, this concept remained and was used by new nationalist movements to justify secession (ibid., p. 104).

Who Are The People?


The major unresolved question regarding self-determination is who the people that fight to govern themselves are.

There appears to be a recent tendency to believe that any group of people who “feel” they have a common identity distinct from other groups should have the right to form an independent state. This assumption is dangerous for various reasons.

First of all, there is no coherent definition of a nation or of identity. Most countries are multicultural, either historically or through migration. The idea of giving any group that at a given moment “feels” that they should have a state the right to secede elevates subjective emotions to a principle of policy-making. This is dangerous because emotions, as historical experience has shown, are easily manipulated and stirred by demagogues and ideologues.

Second, the principle of self-determination paves the way for identity politics. It is a strategy often used by political leaders to divide people, to sow discord and hatred, and to mobilize crowds, feeding them anger, fear and resentment targeted at different groups. Democracy is based on rational principles of governance derived from practice and common sense. Basing governance on emotions, or subjective identity, can only lead to the destruction of democracy by demagoguery.


Can Self-determination Lead To Secession?


In 1776 Britain’s thirteen American colonies split from the empire and formed the United States of America. Nearly a century later, US President Abraham Lincoln denied the same right to secession to the southern states that had declared independence.

There seems to be a contradiction between the US’ desire to separate themselves from Britain, and their waging war against secessionist states. But this contradiction is only superficial.

The ‘Lincoln argument’, laid out in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, shows the fundamental difference between 1776 and 1861.

“[T]he central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy,” Lincoln said. “A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible. The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.”

Lincoln understood that a true democracy must be based on equality, debate and order. He understood that as long as all citizens enjoy the same rights and duties, as long as there is a government that is based on free elections, as long as there is separation of powers and basic rights are granted to each and every citizen, then secession means the end of democracy, the end of debate and government. If any group of people, at any time, can leave a state because they disagree with the central government, democracy would be impossible.

But why then was it legitimate for the United States to secede from Britain?

“Remedial” Secession


The United States did not secede from Britain because of ‘national identity’. They did so because they were treated as second-class citizens, deprived of the basic rights of Englishmen living in Britain. They seceded because they were oppressed by a tyrannical government that gave Englishmen in England more rights and privileges than Englishmen in the Thirteen Colonies.

While secession is rationally justified when people are denied basic rights and when citizens are not equal before the law, the idea of secession based on identity is per definition anti-democratic. Because identity is never fixed and can never be fixed, because societies are multicultural and diverse, and because identity (ethnic, sexual, ideological, linguistic, religious, social etc.) should never be elevated to state dogma, or else democracy itself must perish.

The idea of secession as a means to free a people from a non-democratic regime is called “remedial right to secede”. Allen Buchanan, professor at Duke University and King’s College, London, argued that international law “should recognize a remedial right to secede but not a general right of self-determination that includes the right to secede for all peoples or nations” (Allen Buchanan, Justice, Legitimacy, and Self-Determination: Moral Foundations for International Law, 2004, p. 205).

That does not mean that cases of secession will not happen, or that people and groups will stop advocating nationalism and secession. But it is important to try and change the narrative and reach a consensus that true freedom must always be ordered and rational freedom, or else it degenerates into anarchy and demagoguery. It is also fundamental that demagogues should not take advantage of people’s financial distress and political dissatisfaction to channel their anger into destructive, radical ideologies of division (religious fundamentalism, nationalism, racism, communism etc.).

The tragedy of the demise of democratic governments by individuals backed by sections of the citizenry has already happened (as in the Weimar Republic, Turkey or Russia) and it will happen again. But it is the duty of people who believe in democracy to warn whenever signs of political degeneration appear, and to propose remedies, regardless of the short-term success or failure of their cause.

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