The right of a people to self-determination is a cardinal principle in modern international law (commonly regarded as a jus cogens rule), binding, as such, on the United Nations as authoritative interpretation of the Charter's norms.[1][2] It states that people, based on respect for the principle of equal rights and fair equality of opportunity, have the right to freely choose their sovereignty and international political status with no interference.[3]

The concept was first expressed in the 1860s, and spread rapidly thereafter.[4][5] During and after World War I, the principle was encouraged by both Vladimir Lenin and United States President Woodrow Wilson.[4][5] Having announced his Fourteen Points on 8 January 1918, on 11 February 1918 Wilson stated: "National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. 'Self determination' is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action."[6]

During World War II, the principle was included in the Atlantic Charter, signed on 14 August 1941, by Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States, and Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, who pledged The Eight Principal points of the Charter.[7] It was recognized as an international legal right after it was explicitly listed as a right in the UN Charter.[8]

The principle does not state how the decision is to be made, nor what the outcome should be, whether it be independence, federation, protection, some form of autonomy or full assimilation.[9] Neither does it state what the delimitation between peoples should be—nor what constitutes a people. There are conflicting definitions and legal criteria for determining which groups may legitimately claim the right to self-determination.[10]

By extension, the term self-determination has come to mean the free choice of one's own acts without external compulsion.[11]


Pre-20th century


The employment of imperialism, through the expansion of empires, and the concept of political sovereignty, as developed after the Treaty of Westphalia, also explain the emergence of self-determination during the modern era. During, and after, the Industrial Revolution many groups of people recognized their shared history, geography, language, and customs. Nationalism emerged as a uniting ideology not only between competing powers, but also for groups that felt subordinated or disenfranchised inside larger states; in this situation, self-determination can be seen as a reaction to imperialism. Such groups often pursued independence and sovereignty over territory, but sometimes a different sense of autonomy has been pursued or achieved.


The world possessed several traditional, continental empires such as the Ottoman, Russian, Austrian/Habsburg, and the Qing Empire. Political scientists often define competition in Europe during the Modern Era as a balance of power struggle, which also induced various European states to pursue colonial empires, beginning with the Spanish and Portuguese, and later including the British, French, Dutch, and German. During the early 19th century, competition in Europe produced multiple wars, most notably the Napoleonic Wars. After this conflict, the British Empire became dominant and entered its "imperial century", while nationalism became a powerful political ideology in Europe.

Later, after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, "New Imperialism" was unleashed with France and later Germany establishing colonies in Asia, the Pacific, and Africa. Japan also emerged as a new power. Multiple theaters of competition developed across the world:

The Ottoman Empire, Austrian Empire, Russian Empire, Qing Empire and the new Empire of Japan maintained themselves, often expanding or contracting at the expense of another empire. All ignored notions of self-determination for those governed.[12]

Rebellions and emergence of nationalism

The revolt of New World British colonists in North America, during the mid-1770s, has been seen as the first assertion of the right of national and democratic self-determination, because of the explicit invocation of natural law, the natural rights of man, as well as the consent of, and sovereignty by, the people governed; these ideas were inspired particularly by John Locke's enlightened writings of the previous century. Thomas Jefferson further promoted the notion that the will of the people was supreme, especially through authorship of the United States Declaration of Independence which inspired Europeans throughout the 19th century.[10] The French Revolution was motivated similarly and legitimatized the ideas of self-determination on that Old World continent.[13][14]

Within the New World during the early 19th century, most of the nations of Spanish America achieved independence from Spain. The United States supported that status, as policy in the hemisphere relative to European colonialism, with the Monroe Doctrine. The American public, organized associated groups, and Congressional resolutions, often supported such movements, particularly the Greek War of Independence (1821–29) and the demands of Hungarian revolutionaries in 1848. Such support, however, never became official government policy, due to balancing of other national interests. After the American Civil War and with increasing capability, the United States government did not accept self-determination as a basis during its Purchase of Alaska and attempted purchase of the West Indian islands of Saint Thomas and Saint John in the 1860s, or its growing influence in the Hawaiian Islands, that led to annexation in 1898. With its victory in the Spanish–American War in 1899 and its growing stature in the world, the United States supported annexation of the former Spanish colonies of Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, without the consent of their peoples, and it retained "quasi-suzerainty" over Cuba, as well.[10]

Nationalist sentiments emerged inside the traditional empires including: Pan-Slavism in Russia; Ottomanism, Kemalist ideology and Arab nationalism in the Ottoman Empire; State Shintoism and Japanese identity in Japan; and Han identity in juxtaposition to the Manchurian ruling class in China. Meanwhile, in Europe itself there was a rise of nationalism, with nations such as Greece, Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria seeking or winning their independence.

Karl Marx supported such nationalism, believing it might be a "prior condition" to social reform and international alliances.[15] In 1914 Vladimir Lenin wrote: "[It] would be wrong to interpret the right to self-determination as meaning anything but the right to existence as a separate state."[16]

World Wars I and II

Europe, Asia and Africa

Map of territorial changes in Europe after World War I (as of 1923)
Map of the world in 1945, showing United Nations Trusteeship Council territories in green[17]

Woodrow Wilson revived America's commitment to self-determination, at least for European states, during World War I. When the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia in November 1917, they called for Russia's immediate withdrawal as a member of the Allies of World War I. They also supported the right of all nations, including colonies, to self-determination."[16] The 1918 Constitution of the Soviet Union acknowledged the right of secession for its constituent republics.[10]

This presented a challenge to Wilson's more limited demands. In January 1918 Wilson issued his Fourteen Points of January 1918 which, among other things, called for adjustment of colonial claims, insofar as the interests of colonial powers had equal weight with the claims of subject peoples.[10] The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 led to Soviet Russia's exit from the war and the nominal independence of Armenia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Georgia and Poland, though in fact those territories were under German control. The end of the war led to the dissolution of the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire and Czechoslovakia and the union of the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs and the Kingdom of Serbia as new states out of the wreckage of the Habsburg empire. However, this imposition of states where some nationalities (especially Poles, Czechs, and Serbs and Romanians) were given power over nationalities who disliked and distrusted them eventually used as a pretext for German aggression in World War II.

One of the German objections to the Treaty of Versailles was a somewhat selective application of the principle of self-determination as the majority of the people in Austria and in the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia wanted to join Germany while the majority of people in Danzig wanted to remain within the Reich, but the Allies ignored the German objections. Wilson's 14 Points had called for Polish independence to be restored and Poland to have "secure access to the sea", which would imply that the German city of Danzig (modern Gdańsk, Poland), which occupied a strategic location where the Vistula river flowed into the Baltic sea, be ceded to Poland.[18] At the Paris peace conference in 1919, the Polish delegation led by Roman Dmowski asked for Wilson to honor point 14 of the 14 points by transferring Danzig to Poland. arguing that Poland would not be economically viable without Danzig.[18] However, as the 90% of the people in Danzig in this period were German, the Allied leaders at the Paris peace conference compromised by creating the Free City of Danzig, a city-state in which Poland had certain special rights.[19] Through the city of Danzig was 90% German and 10% Polish, the surrounding countryside around Danzig was overwhelmingly Polish, and the ethnically Polish rural areas included in the Free City of Danzig objected, arguing that they wanted to be part of Poland.[18] Neither the Poles nor the Germans were happy with this compromise and the Danzig issue became a flash-point of German-Polish tension throughout the interwar period.[20]

Germany lost land after WWI: Northern Schleswig voted to return to Denmark after a referendum. On 11 July 1920, the East Prussian plebiscite called for by the Treaty of Versailles led to two disputed regions between Germany and Poland choosing the former. In 1921, a plebiscite in Silesia concerning partitioning the region between Germany and Poland led to fighting breaking out between the ethnic German and ethnic Polish residents of Silesia. The defeated Ottoman empire was dissolved into the Republic of Turkey and several smaller nations, including Yemen, plus the new Middle East Allied "mandates" of Syria and Lebanon (future Syria, Lebanon and Hatay State), Palestine (future Transjordan and Israel), Mesopotamia (future Iraq). In 1919, a Greek attempt to add the mostly Greek-speaking western regions of Anatolia led to a war between Greece and Turkey when the Greeks occupied the largely Greek-speaking city of Smyrna (modern İzmir, Turkey) in May 1919.[21] In 1922, the Greeks were defeated and under the terms of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne compulsorily population exchanges led to almost all the Turks in Greece being expelled into Turkey and almost all of the Greeks in Turkey being expelled into Greece. The League of Nations was proposed as much as a means of consolidating these new states, as a path to peace.[22]

During the 1920s and 1930s there were some successful movements for self-determination in the beginnings of the process of decolonization. In the Statute of Westminster the United Kingdom granted independence to Canada, New Zealand, Newfoundland, the Irish Free State, the Commonwealth of Australia, and the Union of South Africa after the British parliament declared itself as incapable of passing laws over them without their consent. Egypt, Afghanistan and Iraq also achieved independence from Britain and Lebanon from France. Other efforts were unsuccessful, like the Indian independence movement. And Italy, Japan and Germany all initiated new efforts to bring certain territories under their control, leading to World War II. In particular, the National Socialist Program invoked this right of nations in its first point (out of 25), as it was publicly proclaimed on 24 February 1920 by Adolf Hitler.

In Asia, Japan became a rising power and gained more respect from Western powers after its victory in the Russo-Japanese War. Japan joined the Allied Powers in World War I and attacked German colonial possessions in the Far East, adding former German possessions to its own empire. In the 1930s, Japan gained significant influence in Inner Mongolia and Manchuria after it invaded Manchuria. It established Manchukuo, a puppet state in Manchuria and eastern Inner Mongolia. This was essentially the model Japan followed as it invaded other areas in Asia and established the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Japan went to considerable trouble to argue that Manchukuo was justified by the principle of self-determination, claiming that people of Manchuria wanted to break away from China and asked the Kwantung Army to intervene on their behalf. However, the Lytton commission which had been appointed by the League of Nations to decide if Japan had committed aggression or not, stated the majority of people in Manchuria who were Han Chinese who did not wish to leave China.

In 1912, the Republic of China officially succeeded the Qing Dynasty, while Outer Mongolia, Tibet and Tuva proclaimed their independence. Independence was not accepted by the government of China. By the Treaty of Kyakhta (1915) Outer Mongolia recognized China's sovereignty. However, the Soviet threat of seizing parts of Inner Mongolia induced China to recognize Outer Mongolia's independence, provided that a referendum was held. The referendum took place on October 20, 1945, with (according to official numbers) 100% of the electorate voting for independence.

Many of Eastern Asia's current disputes to sovereignty and self-determination stem from unresolved disputes from World War II. After its fall, the Empire of Japan renounced control over many of its former possessions including Korea, Sakhalin Island, and Taiwan. In none of these areas were the opinions of affected people consulted, or given significant priority. Korea was specifically granted independence but the receiver of various other areas was not stated in the Treaty of San Francisco, giving Taiwan de facto independence although its political status continues to be ambiguous.

The Cold War world

The UN Charter and resolutions

In 1941 Allies of World War II declared the Atlantic Charter and accepted the principle of self-determination. In January 1942 twenty-six states signed the Declaration by United Nations, which accepted those principles. The ratification of the United Nations Charter in 1945 at the end of World War II placed the right of self-determination into the framework of international law and diplomacy.

  • Chapter 1, Article 1, part 2 states that purpose of the UN Charter is: "To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace."[23]
  • Article 1 in both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)[24] and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)[25] reads: "All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. "
  • The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights article 15 states that everyone has the right to a nationality and that no one should be arbitrarily deprived of a nationality or denied the right to change nationality.
Western European colonial empires in Asia and Africa disintegrated after World War II

On 14 December 1960, the United Nations General Assembly adopted United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) subtitled "Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples", which supported the granting of independence to colonial countries and people by providing an inevitable legal linkage between self-determination and its goal of decolonisation. It postulated a new international law-based right of freedom to exercise economic self-determination. Article 5 states: Immediate steps shall be taken in Trust and Non-Self-Governing Territories,[26] or all other territories which have not yet attained independence, to transfer all powers to the people of those territories, without any conditions or reservations, in accordance with their freely expressed will and desire, without any distinction as to race, creed or colour, in order to enable them to enjoy complete independence and freedom.

On 15 December 1960 the United Nations General Assembly adopted United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1541 (XV), subtitled "Principles which should guide members in determining whether or nor an obligation exists to transmit the information called for under Article 73e of the United Nations Charter in Article 3", which provided that "[t]he inadequacy of political, economic, social and educational preparedness should never serve as a pretext for delaying the right to self-determination and independence." To monitor the implementation of Resolution 1514, in 1961 the General Assembly created the Special Committee referred to popularly as the Special Committee on Decolonization[27] to ensure decolonization complete compliance with the principles of self-determination in General Assembly Resolution 1541 (XV).[28][29][30]

However, the charter and other resolutions did not insist on full independence as the best way of obtaining self-government, nor did they include an enforcement mechanism. Moreover, new states were recognized by the legal doctrine of uti possidetis juris, meaning that old administrative boundaries would become international boundaries upon independence if they had little relevance to linguistic, ethnic, and cultural boundaries.[31][32] Nevertheless, justified by the language of self-determination, between 1946 and 1960, thirty-seven new nations in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East gained independence from colonial powers.[10][33][34] The territoriality issue inevitably would lead to more conflicts and independence movements within many states and challenges to the assumption that territorial integrity is as important as self-determination.[31]

The communist versus capitalist worlds

Decolonization in the world was contrasted by the Soviet Union's successful post-war expansionism. Tuva and several regional states in Eastern Europe, the Baltic, and Central Asia had been fully annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II. Now, it extended its influence by establishing satellite states Eastern Germany and the countries of Eastern Europe, along with support for revolutionary movements in China and North Korea. Although satellite states were independent and possessed sovereignty, the Soviet Union violated principles of self-determination by suppressing the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and the Prague Spring Czechoslovak reforms of 1968. It invaded Afghanistan to support a communist government assailed by local tribal groups.[10] However, Marxism–Leninism and its theory of imperialism were also strong influences in the national emancipation movements of Third World nations rebelling against colonial or puppet regimes. In many Third World countries, communism became an ideology that united groups to oppose imperialism or colonization.

Soviet actions were contained by the United States which saw communism as a menace to its interests. Throughout the cold war, the United States created, supported, and sponsored regimes with various success that served their economic and political interests, among them anti-communist regimes such as that of Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Suharto in Indonesia. To achieve this, a variety of means was implemented, including the orchestration of coups, sponsoring of anti-communist countries and military interventions. Consequently, many self-determination movements, which spurned some type of anti-communist government, were accused of being Soviet-inspired or controlled.[10]


In Asia, the Soviet Union had already converted Mongolia into a satellite state but abandoned propping up the Second East Turkestan Republic and gave up its Manchurian claims to China. The new People's Republic of China had gained control of mainland China in the Chinese Civil War. The Korean War shifted the focus of the Cold War from Europe to Asia, where competing superpowers took advantage of decolonization to spread their influence.

In 1947, India gained independence from the British Empire. The empire was in decline but adapted to these circumstances by creating the British Commonwealth—since 1949 the Commonwealth of Nations—which is a free association of equal states. As India obtained its independence, multiple ethnic conflicts emerged in relation to the formation of a statehood during the Partition of India which resulted in Islamic Pakistan and Secular India. Before the advent of the British, no empire based in mainland India had controlled any part of what now makes up the country's Northeast, part of the reason for the ongoing insurgency in Northeast India.[35] In 1971 Bangladesh obtained independence from Pakistan.

Burma also gained independence from the British Empire, but declined membership in the Commonwealth.

Indonesia gained independence from the Netherlands in 1949 after the latter failed to restore colonial control. As mentioned above, Indonesia also wanted a powerful position in the region that could be lessened by the creation of united Malaysia. The Netherlands retained Dutch New Guinea, but Indonesia threatened to invade and annex it. A vote was supposedly taken under the UN sponsored Act of Free Choice to allow West New Guineans to decide their fate, although many dispute its veracity. Later, Portugal relinquished control over East Timor in 1975, at which time Indonesia promptly invaded and annexed it.

After the Cold War

Changes in national boundaries after the end of the Cold War

The Cold War began to wind down after Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power in March 1985. With the cooperation of the American president Ronald Reagan, Gorbachev wound down the size of the Soviet Armed Forces and reduced nuclear arms in Europe, while liberalizing the economy.

In 1989 – 90, the communist regimes of Soviet satellite states collapsed in rapid succession in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, and Mongolia. East and West Germany united, Czechoslovakia peacefully split into Czech Republic and Slovakia, while in 1990 Yugoslavia began a violent break up into its former 6 sub-unit republics. Kosovo, which was previously an autonomous unit of Serbia declared independence in 2008, but has received less international recognition.[10]

In December 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president and the Soviet Union dissolved relatively peacefully into fifteen sovereign republics, all of which rejected communism and most of which adopted democratic reforms and free-market economies. Inside those new republics, four major areas have claimed their own independence, but not received widespread international recognition.

After decades of civil war, Indonesia finally recognized the independence of East Timor in 2002.

In 1949, the Communists won the civil war and established the People's Republic of China in Mainland China. The Kuomintang-led Republic of China government retreated to Taipei, its jurisdiction now limited to Taiwan and several outlying islands. Since then, the People's Republic of China has been involved in disputes with the ROC over issues of sovereignty and the political status of Taiwan.

As noted, self-determination movements remain strong in some areas of the world. Some areas possess de facto independence, such as Taiwan, North Cyprus, Kosovo, and South Ossetia, but their independence is disputed by one or more major states. Significant movements for self-determination also persist for locations that lack de facto independence, such as Kurdistan, Balochistan, Chechnya, and the State of Palestine