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Debate: Self-determination

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Do people have a right to self-determination?

Background and context

Over the centuries countries have been conquered, new peoples have invaded and native peoples have been suppressed. Indigenous peoples (those native to the land) have historically been marginalized and disadvantaged. In the twentieth century, native peoples have begun to claim the right to rule themselves, to be recognised independently, and to determine the future of their own communities. At the Sydney Olympics, Cathy Freeman became the first woman of aboriginal origin to represent the predominantly white Australia at the Games, bringing the marginalization of her people to the world’s attention. Across the world nationalist movements such as the Northern People’s Congress in Nigeria in the 1960s, the Quebecois in French-speaking Canada, and the British Nationalists in Gibraltar, campaign to determine their own allegiances and government. A group that identifies themselves as a “people” may do so on ethnic, national, religious, cultural or linguistic grounds. Nationalism can manifest in a number of often destabilising ways: in the 1970s Somalia waged war to try to reunite with other Somali-speaking people in Kenya; India and Pakistan are currently locked in conflict over the future of (predominantly Muslim) Kashmir (under the control of Hindu India); and the Arab-Israel conflict continues to rage over the proposed establishment of a State of Palestine. On the one hand, self-determination reflects the historical suppression of those peoples who are owed most from the land that they have owned and tended (for example, the Africans whose lands were taken by white colonialists); on the other, self-determination and nationalism can generate dangerous conflict and fragmentation where identity generates exclusivity (e.g. Yugoslavia). For some the solution is separation and secession (independence), for others federalism affords minority rights but continues to promote civic unity.

Contents

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A right? - Is self-determination a right for groups within a society?

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Yes

  • Self-determination is a fundamental right that must be afforded to a native or national group. The UN General Assembly Resolution 1514 (The Declaration Granting Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples), the Helsinki Act and the African Charter of Human Rights all assert that self-determination is an important right. Without the ability to actively partake in citizenship activities – primarily voting for their own government - indigenous peoples are oppressed.
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No

  • Being part of a minority (in a democracy where the majority rule) should not secure rights of self-determination:
  • Calls for independence destabilize countries. Turmoil is not conducive to the promotion of human rights. The UN General Assembly Resolution 2625 argues that territorial integrity and stability ‘trump’ claims for self-determination.[1] Nationalism threatens stability, as is evident in Northern Ireland, Kashmir, Palestine, the Basque Country and Sri Lanka.[2]
  • The right to self-determination tends to be framed in the context of de-colonisation, which has long since passed.
  • If the minority is able to actively take part in a legitimate and representative government (by voting, lobbying, etc.), then self-determination is viewed as an illegitimate claim in International Law:
  • Determining who represents a "native" may make it difficult to decide who is being afforded the right to choose: Should all of Spain be allowed to vote in the fate of Gibraltar? Should the British mainland have the vote? Who has the right? What makes you a native or a national? The broader international context may mean that other interests or legal agreements must take precedence (e.g. in returning Hong Kong to China after 100 years under British rule).
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Compensation for abuses - Should self-determination be offered to minority groups as compensation for past abuses?

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Yes

  • The oppression and abuse of native peoples by (primarily) colonial powers should be repaired by offering the right of self-determination: In Africa, European colonists exploited the mineral resources such as copper and diamonds. Land was effectively stolen from Native peoples; Self-determination and independence would offer recognition of the fact that they were unfairly treated and their proprietary rights abused.
  • The recognition of minority rights protects cultural identities that risk being diluted:
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No

  • The wrongs of the colonial powers are not the fault of modern governments: In the post-Cold War Era we are moving away from nationalist ideology. The international community has frowned upon the rise of ethnic nationalism in Europe. The breakdown of Yugoslavia is indicative of how dangerous and destructive ethno-nationalism can be. Nationalism is about difference, which flies in the face of the idea of the global citizen. Nationalist causes are often pursued by violent terrorist organisations that ought not to be rewarded for their disregard of human life. By trying to recognise minority rights governments run the risk of treating people differently and giving minorities preferential treatment at the expense of the majority. National borders are becoming less significant definers of identity; Irish Americans, British Muslims, Catholic Africans and French-Speaking Arabs are all cogent identities. Boundaries are not the solution to the fear of the threat of cultural dilution or oppression.
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Stability - Could self-determination help international stability?

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Yes

  • The state borders drawn (particularly in Africa) by colonial empires took no account of native fault-lines: Ethnic groups were split and divided. In the post-colonial environment, these borders are inappropriate and are not "true" nations. Self-determination would enable a shift back to genuine associations. Nations of the world can only have self-determination if they have statehood.
  • Self-determination does not always mean independence: In Gibraltar the people are campaigning for the autonomy and authority to elect to remain British and not to rejoin with Spain. Self-determination is about representation and identity and choice.
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No

  • The re-drawing of state boundaries is hardly the best way to promote stability in newly independent states: The 1964 Organisation of African Unity (OAU) stated in the Cairo Resolution that it would accept the boundaries drawn by colonial powers. Governments ought to concentrate on bolstering states with civic identities. Federalism is one government structure that can accommodate self-determination within national boundaries. For example, in Canada, Quebec has relative autonomy including some native courts.

See also

External links and resources

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