The right of self-determination for all peoples was first enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations. It has however been the subject of extensive debate and controversy. Both the content of the right as well as who can assert it continue to evolve in international law.
According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (the ICCPR), ‘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.’
The right to self-determination also has its economic content which gives the peoples the right to freely ‘dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligations arising out of international economic cooperation, based upon the principle of mutual benefit, and international law.’ The phrase ‘all peoples’ – instead of ‘everyone’- attached to the right to self-determination indicates that the right to self-determination is a collective right; that is, only a ‘people’, not an individual, can exercise the right.
Initially conceived, the right to self-determination belonged to the population, or people, of a fixed territorial entity, specifically peoples oppressed by a colonial power. The Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples and the jurisprudence of the International Court of Justice emphasise the connection between the right to self-determination and peoples of colonised territories. In this context, the right to self-determination is “externally” exercised by secession from a colonial power to form a new state. The right of colonial peoples to external self-determination is well established in international law.
More recently, it has been postulated that the right to self-determination can be exercised ‘internally’ as well.Internal self-determination allows a people broader control over their political, economic, social and cultural development, while stopping short of secession.
The development of a new conception of ‘peoples’ has evolved with the development of the idea of internal self-determination. In this context, the definition of ‘peoples’ is not only limited to the population of a fixed territorial entity but also encompasses indigenous groups and potentially some minorities.
Although there is no fully accepted definition of peoples, references are often made to a definition proposed by UN Special Rapporteur Martínez Cobo in his study on discrimination against indigenous populations:
‘Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems.’
Instruments protecting the right to self-determination
Article 1(2), Charter of the United Nations
Articles 1 and 12, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
Article 1(1), International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
General Recommendation No.21 on Right to Self-Determination, Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
Article 29, Convention on the Rights of the Child
Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide General Comment No.12 on Self-Determination, Human Rights Committee
Article II, Resolution 260A(III) on the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, General Assembly
ILO Convention concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, No. 169
Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation Among States
Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples
Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities
Resolution 1803 (XVII) of 14 December 1962, ‘Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources’, UN General Assembly
Article 20(1), African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights
Kalevi Paadar et al. v Finland, Human Rights Committee, 2011
Poma Poma v Peru, Human Rights Committee, 2006
Gillot v France, Human Rights Committee, 2002
Länsman (Jouni) et al. (2) v Finland, Human Rights Committee, 2001
Diergaardt et al v Namibia, Human Rights Committee, 2000
Howard v Canada, Human Rights Committee, 1999