Right of peoples to self-determination

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The right of peoples to self-determination is one of the fundamental rights of international law . It says that a people has the right to freely decide on its political status, its state and form of government and its economic, social and cultural development. This includes his freedom from foreign rule . This right to self-determination enables a people to form a nation or its own national state , or to join another state in a free will .

Today, the right of peoples to self-determination is generally recognized as a customary norm of international law. His legal character is also by Article 1 paragraph 2 of the UN Charter , by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), both of 19 December 1966, international treaty legally recognized . It is therefore universal.



The principle of self-determination was expressly formulated in the philosophy of the Enlightenment and was initially an individual right, closely linked to the Kantian concept of “maturity”. The change to group law began with the struggle for religious freedom .

In 1659 the font Gentis Felicitas by Johann Amos Comenius was published (freely translated the title means: "People's Welfare"). The writing begins with the definition of the term “people” and in the second paragraph derives the national from the individual striving for happiness:

“(1) A people [...] is a multitude of people who have sprung from the same tribe, live in the same place on earth [...], speak the same language and through the same bonds of common love, harmony and effort for the public good are connected.
(2) There are many and different peoples [...], they are all characterized by divine disposition in this character trait: as every person loves himself, so does every nation, it wants to feel good, cheer each other on to a state of happiness in mutual competition. "

Then Comenius puts together (each with justification and explanation) 18 characteristics for “people's welfare”, including a uniform population without mixing with strangers, inner harmony, government by rulers from their own people and purity of religion.

In the late 18th century, the peoples' right to self-determination was formulated as “ popular sovereignty ” and in the French Revolution and in the American War of Independence it was victorious over the dynastic principle that had been recognized until then . This interpretation of the collective right to self-determination is thus a continuation of its individual ( Kantian ) counterpart and negates the ethnic dimension of the concept of the people, which the above definition contains. In the context of the bourgeois revolutions, “people” is to be understood as a political category that manifests itself in a “vertical”, that is, to the classical ruling elites (nobility, king), but not in a “horizontal” (in contrast to other ethnic groups) . In this context, we can already find the crucial difference between an ethnic and a political definition of the term “ nation ”.

In this tradition, the right to self-determination is closely linked to the idea of ​​popular sovereignty. The prerequisite for the idea of ​​political self-determination was the development of the political concept of the people in the 19th century.

As early as the endeavors to form nation states in Europe in the 19th century, motivated by the French Revolution , the ethnic interpretation of the concept of the people became more and more popular. Thus, after the political concept of the people was established after the revolution of 1848, the idea of ​​the nationality principle developed , according to which every ethnic group had the right to its (own) state . This was primarily directed against the multinational kingdoms and empires of what was then Europe.

Since the First World War

The idea of ​​the right of peoples to self-determination was propagated by Lenin in October 1914 and for the time being implemented consistently with the decree on the rights of the peoples of Russia after the October Revolution . In addition, Leon Trotsky demanded in the Zimmerwald Manifesto in 1915 that the “right of peoples to self-determination [...] must be an unshakable principle in the order of national relations”.

The then US President Woodrow Wilson based his peace efforts (→  14-point program ) at the end of the First World War on the idea of ​​the right of peoples to self-determination, although he associated it with a different content than Lenin.

After the Second World War

After the Second World War , the right to self-determination can be found in various UN documents. In the Soviet doctrine of international law, too, at least in later years, there is talk of the “right of peoples and nations to self-determination”. According to her, under “people” the respective population of a certain territory (independent of the historical development, as required for “nation” in the sense of Josef Stalin ) is to be considered. All that is required is a common area and other similarities of a historical, cultural, linguistic and religious nature and the connection through common goals, which she wants to achieve with the help of the right to self-determination. This was also taken into account by the end of the distortion of the right to self-determination ( Brezhnev doctrine ). In the specific case, for example the question of the legal status of Germany as a whole after the Second World War, the interpretations differed significantly according to the respective understanding of the parties.

International law applicable today

The right of peoples to self-determination is one of the basic axioms of the Charter of the United Nations . It is mentioned in Articles 1, 2 and 55 and referred to as a basis of relations between states.

A binding obligation of the contracting states to comply with the right to self-determination emerges from the two human rights covenants of the United Nations , which were adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966 and entered into force in 1977 after the necessary number of ratifications . The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (IPbpR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (IPwskR) of the same date declare the right of self-determination for the contracting states to be binding. Article I of both pacts states:

“(1) All peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of this right, they decide freely about their political status and freely shape their economic, social and cultural development. "

“(2) All peoples may freely dispose of their natural riches and resources for their own ends, without prejudice to all obligations arising from international economic cooperation on the basis of mutual good and from international law. In no case may a people be deprived of their own means of existence. "

"(3) The contracting states, including the states responsible for the administration of areas without self-government and trust areas, must promote the realization of the right to self-determination and respect this right in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations."

The UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are responsible for monitoring compliance with this contractual obligation . The concrete content of this legal norm is formulated in a General Comment of the Human Rights Committee from 1984.

The right of peoples to self-determination is ius cogens (cf. the codification in Art. 53 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (WVRK)). It is therefore a norm that must not be deviated from and which could only be changed by a later norm of general international law. Contracts that violate existing ius cogens are void (see the rule codified in Art. 53 VCR).

In principle, the right to self-determination does not create individual rights, but rather offers the framework for their development or at least the free formation of groups; There is of course a right of the individual to have the group of which he is a member granted this right.

The right to self-determination as a principle of international law

The right of peoples to self-determination is recognized in various ICJ judgments as a “universal” and “customary international law principle” with erga omnes character. The definition of the right to self-determination was refined by the UN General Assembly in a declaration of its principles, the Friendly Relations Declaration of October 24, 1970. Although it does not have the character of a legal norm, it is used by international law theory to determine the content of the right to self-determination.

Self-determination and the right of secession

Also because the current international law protects the territorial integrity of all states which, as it is said, “have a government which represents the entire population of the area regardless of race, belief or skin color”, there is no international legal norm “which would expressly affirm or forbid a right of secession ”. No right of secession can even be derived from state practice. External self-determination and autonomy must also be granted and designed on a case-by-case basis.

If the state discriminates against the minority striving for autonomy or even its own state through its exercise of power , it can forfeit its claim to territorial integrity according to current international law.

Right of self-determination in multiethnic states

According to Karl Doehring , the right to self-determination has the character of a right to self-defense: if an ethnic group is discriminated in a fundamental way, precisely because of its group characteristics, then it has a right to secession. In each individual case, however, it must be carefully examined whether there is an evident and fundamental violation of human rights and whether the minority is given political and legal options to represent its own interests or, if necessary, to defend itself against discrimination. A decision has to be made as to whether the discriminated people are impaired to such an extent that it justifies partially restricting the state's right to self-determination. The state has to “represent the whole [state] people” through its state authority. If individual ethnic groups are " excluded from participation in state life by definition ", only then does the state forfeit the loyalty of its citizens.

Right to self-determination and territorial integrity


A definition of “people” has not been made in the human rights covenants and, from a legal point of view, cannot be given in a general form. What is to be understood by a people is always constructed in a concrete historical, political and cultural context. A smaller group within existing states can be understood as a “people” if certain criteria (e.g. a certain homogeneity, common history and self-identification as a distinct group) are given. Characteristics that establish identity have both inclusive and exclusive functions, some people are included, others excluded.

Also, indigenous peoples rely in their demands center on self-determination. For this reason, many countries take the view that there were no indigenous peoples ( indigenous peoples ), but only indigenous people ( indigenous people ). Bolivia took the opposite path when the republic was officially renamed the Plurinational State of Bolivia in 2009 . This at least emphasized that the state had to take into account the rights of the indigenous population in order to justify the legitimacy of the multi-ethnic country. However, so far there is no state in which the ancestral land of an autochthonous population has been transformed into an autonomously administered province with the same rights as other provinces.

The ethical and moral claim

In addition to the legal approach, the term right of peoples to self-determination is also understood in the sense of an ethical and moral claim that is occasionally used to underpin political goals and in many cases of conflict could be a possible solution to simmering conflicts. However, this is not necessarily a matter of codified or generally enforced international law.

For example, minorities derive the right to define themselves as a people and to claim autonomy for themselves, whereby autonomy can be understood as everything from the right to language and customs to political statehood. However, such an interpretation is controversial.

The factual enforceability or enforcement of the applicable law depends on the current actual power structure and the interests interwoven in it.

A frequent problem is overlapping territorial claims of several ethnic groups , each of which invokes their right to self-determination, or the emergence of new minorities through the establishment of states that have arisen on the basis of the right to self-determination. If such minorities want to realize their right to self-determination for their part, this can lead to further conflicts. The right to self-determination also becomes conflict-prone when the natural resources of a country are particularly concentrated in one area and the population group that dominates in this area demands a larger share of these resources.

A current example is Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia . With the establishment of the Kosovar state and the secession of Serbia , a practical problem arises of the application of the right to self-determination as to who is allowed to participate in the expression of will of the secession from an already existing state. This applies in particular to peoples that are relatively small in number, where a colonizer can quickly and effectively prevent the establishment of a majority for secession by settling his own nationals by exercising the right of self-determination in referendums according to the majority principle, or where the holding of the referendum would be institutionally prevented.

Problems after the First World War

Until World War II, most nations were in Central Europe under the rule of European empires: the Russian empire , the since the 18th century in the decay nascent Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary . The German Empire also included part of the Polish, Danish and French settlement areas. The result of the First World War was the collapse of these empires and the emergence of new nation states.

Woodrow Wilson's concept referred first and foremost to the "historical nations"; B. the Poles and Czechs , who had forfeited their former statehood through division or submission and were now under the rule of the continental powers Russia , Austria-Hungary and Germany. Population groups without an independent history were taken into account to a lesser extent.

Wilson was well aware that due to the ethnic mix in the affected countries, not every nation could form its own economically viable nation-state. He understood his concept of “self-determination” , as some historians believe, less as “national self-determination” than as “democratic self-determination” ( self-government ). The peoples of Europe should become democracies because this form of rule , the US President believed, was in principle more peaceful than other political systems. This democratic-political aspect was deliberately overlooked by the young nations of East-Central and Southeastern Europe and especially by the Germans. So predominantly new nationality states emerged from the disintegrated empires , but some of them were governed like nation states.

These include the first Czechoslovak Republic , which included the historic crown lands of Bohemia and Moravia , Slovakia and Carpathian Ukraine , previously known as "Upper Hungary" , Yugoslavia, founded as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes , Romania with the Hungarian and German population in Transylvania such as also Poland, which brought large parts of Lithuania , Belarus and western Ukraine under its rule. The largest percentage loss of territory suffered Hungary , which was reduced to a third of the territory that it had included in the Habsburg dual monarchy.

The collapse of Austria-Hungary

Both Hungarians and Germans suddenly saw themselves in a minority position in the successor states of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and accordingly demanded - largely unsuccessfully - an implementation of their right to self-determination. This particularly affected Czechoslovakia, in which the Germans represented the second largest population group.

The amalgamation of Austria with the German Reich would only have been possible with the consent of the Allies. However, they rejected a union of the two states in the Treaty of Saint-Germain because this would have led to the formation of a continental power. The state designation " German Austria " was also rejected by the Allies and had to be changed to "Republic of Austria".

Treaty of Versailles with the German Empire

The German assignments of territory to Poland, Belgium, France and Denmark as a result of the Versailles Treaty were also seen as disregarding the right to self-determination from a German perspective, as some of the assignments either took place without a referendum or their results were ignored or manipulated.


The African continent was largely under European colonial rule until the middle of the 20th century . The independence movements of this continent based their efforts on the right of the peoples to self-determination, but not in the same way as the new nation-states of Central Europe. For example, the members of the Organization for African Unity agreed early on not to touch the colonial state borders , which were primarily established at the Berlin Congo Conference of 1884/1885. Most African states are multiethnic states according to the European understanding. A right to self-determination that would have related to individual ethnic groups was not realized here. It did so in the face of fears that border revisions along ethnic lines would have started a never-ending chain of wars. The only cases of recognition of a later state are Namibia , which gained independence from South Africa in 1990 , Eritrea , which seceded from Ethiopia after several decades of war , and South Sudan , which split from Sudan . Somaliland , which has been de facto independent since 1991, remains without international recognition and is considered a stabilized de facto regime .

At the same time, secessionist tendencies exist in various African countries, which are motivated by the wealth of resources in individual regions.

The demand of the indigenous Sahrawis for the independence of Western Sahara has not yet been met . Today this represents the last colony on the African continent.

Collapse of the Soviet Union

The renaissance of national movements in the Union republics was one of the main driving forces that brought about the end of the Soviet Union. The pioneering role was played by the Baltic states , which were occupied and then annexed by the USSR in 1941 as part of the German-Soviet non-aggression pact .

The national movements in these three republics were not only able to achieve a considerable increase in the enforcement and recognition of sovereign rights, but also the ultimately successful unilateral separation from the Soviet Union. It should be noted that in the case of Baltic republics, the question of the right of peoples to self-determination in the sense of international law cannot be called into question when the Soviet Union collapsed , since the statehood of the Baltic republics existed before the occupation of the USSR and the (1990-1992) political) independence was only to be proclaimed. New Baltic states did not emerge after the collapse of the USSR, as they were considered states earlier.

The example of the states in the Baltic States initially caught on in those republics that could look back on the tradition of national movements, such as Georgia and the Ukraine , but was also adapted by state leaders whose state nations were predominantly a creation of the Stalin era, e.g. B. Turkmenistan .

The concept of the right to self-determination was able to become so influential in some of the former Soviet republics because Lenin had made it the core of his program before the October Revolution . According to his theory, the Soviet Union was a free alliance of free peoples who had realized their right to self-determination.

This positive reference to the right to self-determination was retained throughout the Soviet era. In this way, Ukraine and Belarus - as theoretically independent states - became founding members of the United Nations .

In the first few decades in particular, the Soviet regime spent considerable funds on nation building in the newly founded republics of Turkestan , in which to date no national tradition had existed, but the reference to tribal identity, religion and way of life (nomadic vs. sedentary) had shaped the identity .

While Lenin's theory was that if nations were given the greatest possible self-determination, they would disappear on their own in the long run, the opposite occurred historically: the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 exactly along the lines drawn by Lenin and his Nationality Commissioner Stalin.

This breakup now led to the emergence of considerable Russian minorities in the neighboring states, some of which now raised the question of self-determination. These include the violent Russian secession of Transnistria from Moldova and the autonomy movement on the predominantly Russian-populated Crimean peninsula . There is a significant Russian minority in Kazakhstan . The relocation of the seat of government from the metropolis of Almaty to the northern provincial city of Akmola by the authoritarian ruling President Nursultan Nazarbayev is also declared as a concession to the Russian population.

Other bloody conflicts in which parties invoked the right to self-determination:

The disintegration of Yugoslavia

The state ideology of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was nominally based on the independence of the constituent republics, which enjoyed a certain amount of leeway in terms of culture and economy. Here, too, mutually exclusive references to the right to self-determination by several ethnic groups settling on the same territory are among the factors that brought about the bloody breakup of the state association during the Yugoslav wars. However, the successor states of the former Yugoslavia again had problems with the various national minorities in the new states. One example is the relationship between Serbs in Croatia.

Problems of the present

Declaration of independence of Kosovo from Serbia, February 17, 2008

The disregard of the peoples' free right to self-determination can trigger, intensify or, if necessary, only make conflicts clearer. Examples from the recent past and present are:

One of the best-known examples is the peaceful exercise of the right of self-determination of the Indian people under Gandhi's leadership in relation to Great Britain . Arguments about the right of peoples to self-determination also play a central role in establishing the legal position of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile (CTA) with regard to Tibet . With the attitude of the Dalai Lama , the government in exile is deliberately taking a non-violent path based on Buddhist principles.


Critics point out that the right to self-determination has often been denied and consider it little more than a political catchphrase. A legal claim could only exist if a more precise definition of the law and its bearers had at least reduced the danger of the "atomization" of states through the fact that a dissatisfied group suddenly declared itself a people. Because this happened neither in the human rights covenants nor in the declaration of principles of October 24, 1970, the covenants could not grant the right. However, this can u. a. It must be countered that neither the mere lack of positive legal standardization (there are other sources besides international treaty law) nor the disputes of individual areas in the case of fundamental outlines hinder the quality of legal norms, and it also contradicts the clear wording of the existing contractual norms.

Some scientists and politicians reject the peoples' right to self-determination on principle. This is how Ralf Dahrendorf described it in 1989 as a "barbaric instrument":

“The Armenians have no right to live among Armenians. But there is a right for Armenian citizens of their community to be like among equals, not to be disadvantaged, and to cultivate their own language and culture. These are civil rights , rights of the individual against any supremacy. The so-called right to self-determination has served as an alibi for homogeneity , and homogeneity always means the expulsion or oppression of minorities. "

Götz Aly explained that the peoples' right to self-determination was originally a “nationalist battle slogan of the 19th century” and describes it as “deeply poisoned”. In his opinion, "time and again [...] majorities who declared themselves to be the" people "crushed the rights of minorities and the inalienable basic rights protecting the individual under the motto self-determination of the 20th century."

See also


  • Johann Amos Comenius : The happiness of the people. Selected writings on reform in science, religion and politics. Translated and edited by Herbert Schönebaum. Alfred Kröner, Leipzig 1924.
  • José A. Obieta Chalbaud: El derecho de autodeterminación de los pueblos. Un estudio interdisciplinar de derechos humanos. In: Publicaciones de la Universidad de Deusto. Volume 11, Universidad de Deusto, Bilbao 1980.
  • Content, nature and current practical significance of the peoples' right to self-determination. I. Symposium, organized from 12. – 14. March 1963 in the rooms of the Evangelical Academy in Hesse and Nassau, Arnoldshain (Taunus). Lectures and debates. Published on behalf of the Evangelical Academy in Hesse and Nassau, Arnoldshain (Ts.) And the Albertus Magnus Kolleg, Königstein (Ts.) In collaboration with the Research Center for Nationality and Language Issues, Kiel by Kurt Rabl. With 6 map diagrams, 5 boards and 1 poster facsimile ( studies and discussions on self-determination and the right to self-determination , vol. 1). Lerche, Munich 1964, p. 50 ff.
  • Dieter Blumenwitz : The human rights pacts of the United Nations and the right of peoples to self-determination. In: Human rights and self-determination taking into account the East Germans. Felix Ermacora, Dieter Blumenwitz, Jens Hacker, Herbert Czaja , Cultural Foundation of the German Expellees , Bonn 1980, p. 21 ff.
  • Dieter Blumenwitz, Boris Meissner (ed.): The right of self-determination of the peoples and the German question. In: Constitutional and international law treatises of the study group for politics and international law , Volume 2, ed. v. Dieter Blumenwitz i. V. m. of the Cultural Foundation of German Expellees, Science and Politics, Cologne 1984.
  • Jörg Fisch : The right of peoples to self-determination. The domestication of an illusion. CH Beck, Munich 2010, ISBN 978-3-40659858-6 .
  • Uwe Krähnke: Self-determination. For the social construction of a normative guiding principle. Velbrück, Weilerswist 2007, ISBN 978-3-93880811-5 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Joachim Bentzien, The international legal barriers of national sovereignty in the 21st century , Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main 2007, p. 45 .
  2. Lenin, On the Right to Self-Determination of Nations , in: Selected Works, Vol. I, Dietz, Berlin 1970, p. 687 (Original: Feb./March 1914).
  3. After the establishment of the Russian Federal Socialist Soviet Republic (RSFSR) in July 1918, however, the self-determined, apostate peoples began to be forcibly suppressed and reintegrated into the state. Cf. Günter Decker, The Right to Self-Determination of Nations , Schwartz, Göttingen 1955, p. 167 ff .; Denise Brühl-Moser, The development of the self-determination right of the peoples with special consideration of its domestic-democratic aspect and its importance for the protection of minorities , Helbing & Lichtenhahn, Basel / Frankfurt am Main 1994, p. 20 f.
  4. Leon Trotsky: The Zimmerwald Manifesto , September 15, 1915 . Retrieved June 12, 2010.
  5. GENERAL COMMENT 12: The right to self-determination of peoples , March 13, 1984 ; Reviewed on February 23, 2006.
  6. See Thilo Rensmann: Value Order and Constitution. The Basic Law in the context of cross-border constitutionalization. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2007, p. 380.
  7. Dahm / Delbrück / Wolfrum, Völkerrecht , Volume I / 3, 2nd edition 2002, p. 711 .
  8. ^ Teso decision, BVerfGE 77, 137, 161
  9. Nicaragua Case, ICJ Rep. 1986, 1, 14
  10. Barcelona Case, ICJ Rep. 1970, 3, 90
  11. See Thiele, Self-Determination Right , pp. 23–26.
  12. 2625 (XXV). Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations
  13. Declaration on principles of international law for friendly relations and cooperation between states within the meaning of the Charter of the United Nations , in: Menschenrechte. Documents and declarations, ed. v. the Federal Agency for Civic Education , Bonn 1999, pp. 210–220, here p. 218 f. (in the original without emphasis).
  14. Quoted from Knut Ipsen and a., International Law , p. 369.
  15. So z. B. Ipsen et al. a., international law , p. 368 f.
  16. ^ Karl Doehring, The self-determination right of the peoples as a principle of international law , p. 32 f.
  17. Stefan Oeter , Right of Self-Determination in Transition. Reflections on the debate about self-determination, the right of secession and “early” recognition , p. 758.
  18. z. For example, in the case of Hawaii , which was independent and internationally recognized until 1898 , the USA assumes that US states, as already enforced on the occasion of the American Civil War , can no longer split off from the state forever - right of self-determination, legality of earlier affiliation or the existence of an earlier own State and its own culture or not. Nevertheless, on November 23, 1993 , the US Congress passed the so-called Apology Bill , with which the US apologized for the illegal annexation of the independent Kingdom of Hawai'i ( UNITED STATES PUBLIC LAW 103-150: 103d Congress Joint Resolution 19 , November 23 1993 ). However, there were no practical consequences.
  19. ^ Klaus Schwabe, Woodrow Wilson and the European system of power in Versailles. Peace organization and national self-determination , in: Gabriele Clemens (Ed.), Nation und Europa. Studies on the international state system in the 19th and 20th centuries, Steiner, Stuttgart 2001, pp. 89–107, here p. 92 f.
  20. Jörg Fisch , Adolf Hitler and the right to self-determination of the peoples , in: Historische Zeitschrift 290 (2010), pp. 93–118, here p. 100 f.
  21. Sönke Neitzel, World War and Revolution 1914–1918 / 19 , be.bra: Berlin 2008, p. 169.
  22. Ralf Dahrendorf: Only people have rights. The peoples' right to self-determination is a barbaric instrument , in: Die Zeit , No. 18/1989.
  23. Götz Aly: Self-determination (poison) of the peoples . In: Berliner Zeitung of March 24, 2014.