The appeal of the principle of self-determination is simple, for it is surely better that nations(ethnic nations) should determine their own destinies than that someone else should do it for them. The concept of self-determination appears to express the idea of democracy, according to which the people are presumed to be best qualified to govern themselves. International law also appears to recognize the right to national self-determination unreservedly. The common Article 1 of the covenants on civil and political rights and on economic, social and cultural rights proclaims that all peoples have the right to self-determination.
The appeal of self-determination is, however, not restricted to democrats and has deeper roots in human nature. All human beings live in groups, and all persistent groups share a common culture. Commitment to a common culture entails an inclination to resist the imposition of alien cultures, although groups respond in various ways to contact with and subjection to other cultures: collaboration, assimilation and resistance are options commonly available. Nevertheless, the desire for cultural autonomy is one of the oldest forms of political motivation known to history, and the right to national self-determination is the principal modern form of its recognition.The global political order is, however, primarily an association of states. International law seeks to regulate the relations among states by recognizing their equal sovereignty. The principal value of this order is peace. The United Nations Organization is concerned primarily with the stability of the existing states system. However, because it was established in response to the imperialistic aggression and atrocities of fascism, it included the protection of human rights and national self-determination among its aims. There are, however, both theoretical and practical tensions between the values of peace, human rights and self-determination.
The concept of human rights accords fundamental value to individual selfdetermination. This value rests on the belief that individuals cannot live in safety and dignity if their lives are controlled by others. They should, therefore, be guaranteed a set of rights that protect their freedom to choose their way of life and their capacity to live it. Such rights, according to the human-rights doctrine, are best protected by governments that are accountable to their people and subject to the rule of law. The idea of human rights, therefore, appears to entail the endorsement of democratic political institutions. However, the logic of human rights and the logic of democracy are different. The concept of human rights is designed to protect certain fundamental interests of individuals against the actions of governments. The concept of democracy legitimates a particular form of governmental power. Democratic government does not necessarily respect human rights. Where democratic government is informed by strong nationalist sentiments, it is more likely to violate the human rights both of its own dissident citizens and of foreigners.
If democratic governments do not necessarily respect human rights, governments motivated primarily by nationalist sentiments are not necessarily democratic and do not necessarily respect human rights. The particularities of the history of the U.S. are such that national self-determination, democracy and individual rights seem to be mutually supportive and even mutually necessary principles. This was the background to President Wilson’s famous proclamation of the principle of national self-determination as the basis of the new world order after the First World War. It is now common for historians to criticize Wilson for ignoring the complex mixture of nations in Europe and consequently proposing a principle that was both impracticable and a recipe for subversion and violent conflict. The principle was not in fact implemented and was abused by the Nazis as an excuse for German expansionism.Although fascism discredited nationalism among Western liberal intellectuals, the anti-fascist political leaders perceived fascism to have constituted a massive violation of both individual human rights and of the rights of nations to self-determination. The U.N. Charter, therefore, included both the traditional principle of international law that states were the primary agents of international politics and the principle that world peace must be based on the self-determination of nations. The chief defect in the U.N. was that several of its leading states were imperialist powers. The global struggle against colonialism gave new meaning to and strengthened the right to national self-determination.
The postcolonial world order, however, also contained a serious flaw. This was the doctrine of uti possidetis juris, which stated that the territorial boundaries of postcolonial states should be the same as those of the colonial territories that they replaced. The rationale of this doctrine was that it would minimize territorial disputes among the postcolonial states and thereby maximize the prospects for peace among them. The state elites of post-colonial, “underdeveloped” countries became strongly attached to the doctrine because it appeared to underpin the stability they believed to be necessary for their projects of development. If postcolonial societies were not yet in reality nations, nation building needs to became part of the project of development.