International Relations Self-Determination
Hurst Hannum
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0125


Self-determination implies the right of a particular group of people to determine for themselves how and by whom they wish to be governed. The principle was little known for much of human history, as groups were either small self-governing communities whose legitimacy was based on religion or culture or, within kingdoms and empires, communities that had no expectation that people could choose their rulers. In the 18th and 19th centuries, political philosophers began to assert that nations or peoples—groups possessing a shared ethnicity, history, language, and/or culture—should control their “own” government, rather than be subjected to alien or foreign rule. This principle of congruence between the “nation” and political governance became known as nationalism, although it remained only a political principle or goal, as opposed to an international legal norm (see Nationalism). The Covenant of the League of Nations proclaimed that it was a “sacred trust” for states to promote the advancement of colonial territories that had previously belonged to the countries defeated in World War I, and these territories were placed under the League’s system of international mandates. However, the League rejected calls from US President Woodrow Wilson that the Covenant include specific reference to self-determination, and there was no recognition of a general right for all peoples, nations, or colonies to be self-governing or independent. Twenty years later, the Charter of the United Nations did recognize the “principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples” and called upon states to develop “free political institutions” in non-self-governing territories under their control. In the 1960s, these general provisions gradually developed into a new international law of self-determination, based not on ethnic or national identity but on non-self-governing status; thus, colonial territories were deemed to possess the right to self-determination and independence, but not the ethnic or cultural “nations” within them. International law has largely maintained this conservative, statist perspective, which rejects the notion that distinct “peoples” within existing states have any right to secession or self-government. The primary self-determination issues debated by contemporary international lawyers, diplomats, and international relations theorists are whether there are any conditions under which groups might acquire a right to external self-determination (independence) and whether self-determination in its internal dimension could imply a right to autonomy or other devolution of power within an existing state for distinct groups within that state.

General Overviews

Most general works on public international law include a section on self-determination, which many scholars consider to be one of the most important developments in international law since 1945. Crawford 2007 addresses self-determination within the broader scope of state creation, while Cassese 1995, Hannum 1993, and Raič 2002 focus on the historical development and contemporary meaning of self-determination. Dahbour 2003 and Moltchanova 2009 offer two alternative philosophical views of self-determination beyond the colonial context, the topic addressed from the legal perspective in Christakis 1999.

  • Cassese, Antonio. Self-Determination of Peoples: A Legal Reappraisal. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    Excellent examination of contemporary self-determination, concluding that customary international law in this area applies only to colonial peoples, peoples under foreign occupation, and racial groups denied equal access to government. Emphasizes need for expanded approach to internal self-determination and a “welding together” of the concepts of self-determination of peoples and protection of ethnic and other minorities.

  • Christakis, Théodore. Le droit à l’auto-détermination en dehors des situations de décolonisation. Paris: La documentation française, 1999.

    A well-argued positivist analysis of public international law finds no support for an international legal right to secession in the postcolonial context but identifies a trend toward recognizing the internal aspect of self-determination, which implies a right to democracy for the population of the state as a whole and perhaps a developing right to autonomy for indigenous peoples.

  • Crawford, James. The Creation of States in International Law. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199228423.001.0001

    A comprehensive and oft-cited treatment of the subject, including sections on the criteria for statehood, self-determination, and secession. Relies heavily on case studies and state practice rather than theoretical arguments.

  • Dahbour, Omar. Illusion of the Peoples: A Critique of National Self-Determination. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2003.

    Wide-ranging rejection of the legitimacy of “national” foundations for self-determination claims. Somewhat superficial arguments in favor of non-national political self-determination, which might be based on geographical contiguity or remedial responses to discriminatory redistribution of wealth and resources or regional exploitation.

  • Hannum, Hurst. “Rethinking Self-Determination.” Virginia Journal of International Law 34 (1993): 1–69.

    Noting that the meaning of self-determination “remains as vague and imprecise as when it was enunciated by President Woodrow Wilson and others at Versailles” (p. 2), maintains that the international law of self-determination necessarily implies independent statehood only in the context of decolonization. Advocates a human rights–based approach that would encourage autonomy within a state as a means of balancing state sovereignty and group demands for self-government. Also available online.

  • Moltchanova, Anna. National Self-Determination and Justice in Multinational States. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-90-481-2691-0

    Philosophical argument for a concept of self-determination that inheres in national groups with a shared political culture, but which stops short of independent statehood. Minority and majority nations within a state should enjoy equal rights of self-determination, understood as internal self-government. Only the denial of “modified self-determination” would justify unilateral secession.

  • Raič, David. Statehood and the Law of Self-Determination. The Hague: Kluwer, 2002.

    Broad historical and contemporary analysis of statehood, self-determination, and state creation, primarily from a legal perspective.

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