• Baguio City, Cordillera Administrative Region, Philippines

Historical Context of the Right to Self-Determination

September 8, 2016

Historically, the right to self-determination was originally applied to nations in creating their own independent states, and in asserting national sovereignty and territorial integrity. This was during the period of the development of modern capitalism in Europe alongside which the original nation-states were formed. (Great Britain, Germany, France, Spain, etc.)

Unlike in Western Europe, where the development was towards integrated nation-states, in Eastern Europe where capitalist development was uneven, multi-national states were formed, states consisting of several nationalities. Thus minority nationalities were formed side by side with a dominant nationality in the multi-national states (eg. Austria-Hungary, Poland, Russia). There existed inequality and national oppression between the dominant nationality and the minority nationalities.

Thus the issue of the right to self-determination was a major concern in the formation of the USSR. One of the major achievements of the USSR before its dis-integration was the unification of the various nationalities with the guarantee of the complete equality of rights for all nations, full recognition of the right of nations to self-determination, and regional autonomy for national groupings occupying their own territory within a multi-national state.

Expansionism and colonization then, and present-day neo-colonialism have stunted the natural course of development of many nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America, for whom the autonomous development towards the capitalist nation-state has been effectively closed. Instead, there is the continuing underdevelopment in the so-called “developing” countries, with monopoly capitalism at the root of this phenomenon. The oppression and exploitation brought about by direct colonization then and neo-liberal globalization now have resulted in the rise of national liberation movements in the colonies and neo-colonies, with the demand for separation or independence as the form of self-determination.

Within the neo-colonies, and even in pockets inside the developed countries, there is the persistence of pre-capitalist modes of production and social formations among indigenous peoples who have refused to give up traditional lifestyles. Indigenous peoples are to be found all over the world and many are self-proclaimed “nations,” while living within a defined national territory of a nation-state. Such tenacious persistence of traditional lifestyles even in the face of neo-colonialism and imperialist globalization are by themselves manifestations of self-determination.

From the above, and notwithstanding the changing context, we may observe that self-determination has been a response to repression, to inequality, to discrimination. Self-determination is thus an assertion of a people’s collective human rights and identity against oppression.

The right of a people to freely determine its political status, in theory, includes the right to form an independent state that stands on equal footing with other nation-states, or otherwise, to define its mode of associating with an existing state wherein it enjoys the same rights as the other constituent peoples of that state.

Thus, the right to self-determination directly translates into the right of peoples to govern themselves without external impositions. Historically, this right covers a wide range of options:

  • Secession: seceding outright from a state of national oppression and creating their own independent state
  • Federation: joining a federation of states as one constituent and co-equal state
  • Regional Autonomy: constituting an autonomous political unit wherein it exercises self-rule within a broader nation-state
  • Special Laws which seek to recognize minority rights eg. Indigenous People’s Rights Act or Bangsa Moro Basic Law

While there may be a whole range of forms of self-determination, the key issue is the empowerment of the people, the level of organization and strength that they are able to build, the struggles that they can successfully wage, including the support that they can generate from the wider population in the country, and internationally, based on the legitimacy of their struggle against oppressive structures.