Self Determination of Peoples
Posted on 1-August-2014
Woodrow Wilson talked a great deal about the self-determination of peoples, but at the end of all the talk about it before and after the Versailles settlement at the end of the 1914-1918 war, all the other powers and his own Secretary of State collectively cocked a snook at him. France for example would not hear any talk of a referendum in Alsace-Lorraine to decide if the territory should go back to France or parts of it should stay with Germany. Alsace-Lorraine had historically been part of France, and that is all, the French said in sum. The redrawal of maps in Europe or the creation of new states and territories in Arabic parts of the Ottoman Empire was accomplished through negotiations among statesmen as after so many other wars in Europe. There was no referendum or plebiscite anywhere. Finally, Woodrow Wilson's advocacy notwithstanding, the principle of self determination of peoples was not inscribed into the Charter of the League of Nations.
India, Pakistan, Myanmar and Srilanka became independent from colonial rule in 1947-1948. Though in their independence some kind of negotiation between the leaders of these countries and the U.K. was involved in handing over power to indigenous elites, there was no referendum. The right of the people of these countries to choose their own future independent from alien rule was implicitly recognised by all. Most of the other countries in Asia and Africa got their independence from colonial rule in a similar fashion. Vietnam and Algeria won their freedom in war and the spurious grounds on which France tried to reestablish itself as a colonial power in Vietnam in 1945 and to retain Algeria seem now bizarre. It is only as late as 1960 that the United Nations made its first declaration on the self-determination of peoples. Other declarations have followed since then. These declarations together constitute a body of international law about the rights of peoples to choose independence from alien rule. There is no settled international law in support of the right of groups of people within states to self determination leading to secession. Nor has this right been used widely, leading to the break up of states. There are three notable exceptions: Eritrea/Ethiopia, Czech/Slovak Republics and South Sudan/Sudan. In each case a referendum was organised with the agreement of the parties concerned. Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan through a long armed struggle and an equally long and brutal repression. Bangladeshe's secession gained legitimacy ex post facto in recognition of the right to self determination.
States have been quite inconsistent in applying the principle of self determination of peoples. Faced with Spanish and Argentinean demands, the British organised referendums in Gibraltar and the Falklands where the voters chose to stay with the United Kingdom. The same British government has had to be dragged to accept the Scottish referendum on Scottish independence next month--the Good Lord must be getting tired of fervent prayers of British politicians for a no vote in Scotland. The Russians suppressed the Chechens very forcefully because they wanted to secede while they cheerfully accepted a Crimean vote in favour of joining Russia. The Western powers have refused to accept the legitimacy of the Crimean vote while they enthusiastically helped Kosovo secede from Serbia. The commitment of the governments in Pakistan to the cause of self-determination of those Kashmiris who are in the Indian administered part of Jammu and Kashmir is almost theological; no Pakistani government would wish even to hear of self determination in Baluchistan.
Looked at slightly differently, calls for self-determination of peoples within state boundaries--there are practically no colonies left now--are made or resisted in pursuit of different objectives either at home or abroad. Like support for human rights or the new doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, support for self determination is in most cases a tool of policy. This comes from the modern political custom of clothing the most down to earth political objective in a high sounding principle. Shrewd people see through the deception; the naif take the declaration of high principle at its face value.