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Has Right to Self-determination Democratic Origin?

The general reading on self-determination is unclear or perhaps silent on the issue whether right to self-determination has democratic pedigree.  Nonetheless this principle has been treated explicitly or tacitly by international scholarship having democratic claim.  Reviewing self-determination from historical perspective makes it clear that this sixteenth century principle emerged as a ‘revolutionary nationalist’ concept for creation of State and was linked closely with ‘popular sovereignty’.  It had no connection with democratic principles, which is relatively a new concept.  Even in Europe and United States, during eighteenth and nineteenth century, self-determination was related to national consciousness of people.

The modern concept of self-determination was brought to the international attention by Soviet Marxist revolutionary – Vladimir Lenin. He advocated self-determination as a secessionist principle, which simply meant ‘people’s right to existence as a separate State’ and had no democratic undertones at all.  Even in the restrictive sense Lenin’s view on self-determination was for international consumption, he never intended to make it applicable on dealings of Soviet Union and the annexation of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia by USSR is a clear example.

On the other hand President Wilson promoted right to self-determination from democratic perspective.  However, it would be fair to say that his ‘Fourteen Points’ (1918) fundamentally focused on adjustment of colonial claims in such a manner that colonial power’s interests was not jeopardised.  The compromise he came up with was procedural remedy of self-governance, which could keep at bay independence of colonial nations.  Wilson’s so-called democratic self-determination, which in effect was a wartime strategy, was unacceptable to the Allied powers during WWI peace negotiations.  Wilson’s concept of self-determination however found its way the League of Nations as minority right protection.

It was only during decolonisation process and drafting of the UN Charter that democratic entitlement of self-determination principle become prominent and continue to gain ground.  In the contemporary times nationalistic/secessionist self-determination is discouraged and every State with minority population offers a procedural remedy from internal self-determination perspective to maintain its territorial integrity.  It is significant to mention though procedural remedy to peoples claim to self-determination is not always the answer, what worked for Hong Kong was not a solution for Kosovo.

Paraphrasing this brief discussion, it is clear that the principle of self-determination do not have democratic origin but it would be fair to conclude that with the advent of the League of Nations concept of positive minority rights was developed, which is linked to concept of democracy.  It is only after the UN Charter one can relate self-determination to democratic entitlement within international law.

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