self determination (international law)

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Self-determination denotes the legal right of people to decide their own destiny in the international order.  Self-determination is a core principle of international law, arising from customary international law, but also recognized as a general principle of law, and enshrined in a number of international treaties.  For instance, self-determination is protected in the United Nations Charter and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as a right of “all peoples.” 

The scope and purpose of the principle of self-determination has evolved significantly in the 20th century.  In the early 1900’s, international support grew for the right of all people to self-determination.  This led to successful secessionist movements during and after WWI, WWII and laid the groundwork for decolonization in the 1960s. 

Contemporary notions of self-determination usually distinguish between “internal” and “external” self-determination, suggesting that "self-determination" exists on a spectrum.  Internal self-determination may refer to various political and social rights; by contrast, external self-determination refers to full legal independence/secession for the given 'people' from the larger politico-legal state.

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See also:

  • uti possidetis juris, requiring the maintenance of the territorial status quo to preserve stability, order and traditional legal boundaries (and hence possibly conflicting with principle of self-determination) (Burkina Faso/Mali, ¶¶25-26, pp.16-17 ("At first sight this principle [UPJ] conflicts outright with another one, the right of peoples to self-determination.")