Self Determination – Update Paper for WorldMUN 2013 UNESCAP

Self determination is a fundamental principle in international relations and national sovereignty. It is the right for a nation to decide for itself how it is to be governed without external forces deciding for the people (UN Charter, Chapter 1, Article 2). Whilst a fundamental principle in international relations; from the human rights agenda, the right to self-determination as explored in this paper relates to policies of self-government and a greater level of economic and political independence for indigenous and ethnic minorities. The right to self-determination is recognised by human rights theorists as a “group right” (Kymlicka 1996). They are rights afforded to groups of people which aim to protect them from external factors. Several questions arise however during discussions regarding the applicability, effectiveness and moral/political issues regarding the right to self-determination. This paper will explore instances of where self-determination has been implemented, the criticisms of the right from a human rights/feminist perspective and finally the criteria to who may be afforded the right to self-determination.

The right to self-determination may be practiced in a manner of different ways. A study of the United States/Canadian attitudes and policy towards the right to self-determination displays several ways in which a government can pass limited political power and independence to indigenous nations. This can include federally acknowledged “reservations” in which tribes are given land to inhabit and control. On this land, minorities with self-determination are free to choose the style of government for their peoples, social welfare, citizenship criteria, legal systems/courts and taxation.
The benefits of granting the right of self-determination are quite board, they range from economic benefits to moral and cultural ones. Whilst per capita, Native Americans on reservations make less than half of the US average, the income of Native Americans on reservations has grown three times faster than the US on a whole since the 1990s (Stephen Cornell, Joseph P. Kalt 2010, p. 8). Not only are there benefits in economic measures, but the institutions of these nations can sometimes rival that of the greater nations, with some communities having the best elderly care facilities in the US and municipal systems which rival that of the states they inhabit. The benefits of self-determination are well documented. Another often touted benefit of self-determination for cultural and ethnic minorities is the preservation and proliferation of cultures in the face of globalism and stronger majorities.
It is obvious that granting such power and legitimacy to a minority within one’s nation can be unsettling or seen as potentially risky from a human rights perspective or even a national sovereignty perspective, however as the US displays, whilst traditionally Native American communities have been exempted for having to follow the US Bill of Rights, legislators have since changed the policy with the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, which states that Native American nations must follow a number of particular articles and amendments within the US Bill of Rights. This is an example of how limited levels of freedom can be afforded so that minorities can benefit from self-government, whilst still respecting the obligations and requirements of the international community.
That is not to say that the right to self-determination is the be all and end all to the problems which cultural and ethnic minorities face. These group rights as Will Kymlicka refers to them can be broken into two families, those which provide external protections and those which provide internal restrictions. External protections from the greater economic and health care policies of nations may provide a buffer for the more fragile and meek nations of ethnic minorities. Internal restrictions may include policies which are sexually discriminatory or deny the right to freedom of religion, but are often justified in the name of preserving cultural traditions of particular nations.
Several feminist scholars including Susan Moller Okin, who famously wrote “Indeed it may be much better off if the culture into which they were born were either to become extinct…”, (1999, p.12) in response to Kymlicka’s work on self-determination, have been outspoken opponents to the right to self-determination for ethnic and cultural minorities citing the many instances in which these rights may further oppress women in the name of cultural preservation and proliferation.
Several topics such as polygamy, cliterodectomy, the marriage of children and other matrimonial customs are things which could be potentially protected by group rights in the name of cultural preservation. An example of such a cultural norm which can become legislation is that of rape and marriage in some Latin American countries where marriage can be seen as a resolution to rape, where by a rape victim can marry her rapist and the rapist is legally exonerated for his crime (New York Times, March 12, 1997). This law comes from a cultural belief that if a woman is to marry her rapist, then the family of the victim can reclaim its honour. Many such cultural and religious customs they argue exist for the sole purpose to control women and render them sexually and reproductively, servile to men’s desires and interests.
This brings into question how self-determination is to be used and implemented. Are states which grant self-determination expected to put in place restrictions to the types of internal policies these nations may produce, even if doing so, completely undermines the point of protecting such cultures? Does this also bring into question which ethnic minorities can be granted such rights? Do cultural minorities which exercise sexist and discriminatory social norms against women do so because they are inherently sexist in nature, or because of their relative poor socio-economic/educational standing with greater society, and would granting the right to self-determination and its associated economic benefits rectify such sexist cultural norms? These are the types of discussions commonly exercised when discussing whether or not self-determination or similar group rights can or should be afforded to certain minorities.
There is also the question of who can be afforded the right to self-determination. Cultural minorities exist all over the world; these include immigrant populations and nomadic peoples, these must be criteria to decide who can and cannot be afforded such rights. The most common criteria is that there be a nation of people with a shared culture and history native to a territory, but many peoples of the world do not have a set territory, such as the Tuareg people of northern Africa between Mali and Algeria, the Romani people of eastern Europe and prior to 1947 the Jewish people did not have a set territory either. This is perhaps one of the most contentious issues regarding the right to self-determination, the discussions of which can lead to loss of life and armed conflict such as instances with the Kurdish nation spread over Iraq and Turkey and the Albanians within Kosovo.
These greater ambitions of secession and total state independence are often conflated with the notion and desire for group rights and the right to self-determination which can often stymie any discussion of the topic within some nations, but also paint the concept in a bad light for those seeking solutions to the problems of wide spread systematic oppression of ethnic and cultural minorities. Moving forward and with respect to the UNESCAP committee how would something like the right to self-determination feature in your country’s domestic policy? How could something like this be used at an international level to tackle the instances of systematic oppression within Asia and the Pacific? In what ways do the criticisms of feminist scholars and other human rights activists affect how this can be implemented to Asia and the Pacific and what criteria would the committee need to agree on before passing a resolution which seeks to implement such a right as a strategy for tackling the issues of systematic oppression?

Cornell & Kalt, “American Indian Self-Determination, The Political Economy of Successful Policy,” Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy/The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. JOPNA Working Paper #1(2010)

Indian Civil Rights Act 1968 (25 U.S.C. §§ 1301-03) [Accessed 1 February 2013]

Kymlicka “The Good, the Bad and the Intolerable: Minority Group Rights,”
Dissent, Summer, Vol. 43, No. 3 (1996), pp. 22.30

Okin, “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?” The Boston Review, (1997) [Accessed 1 February 2013]

Sims, “Justice in Peru: Victim gets Rapist for Husband” The New York Times (1997) [Accessed 1 February 2013]

UN Charter, Chapter 1, Article 2 [Accessed 1 February 2013]


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About Saúl A. Zavarce

Venezuelan-Australian journalist and international relations academic.

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