Self Determination – A Mobius Strip?

by Noah Marks 

At every press conference and in every newspaper article about the rapidly changing developments in Ukraine, leaders and analysts are struggling to adapt and apply World War II and Cold War era terminology to a globalized, interconnected world. Specifically, the term “self-determination” has been nearly turned inside out between Russian declarations and American warnings. Given the revolutionary milieu (e.g. Arab Spring), understanding this critical term’s history reveals deep irony in its present use and demonstrates the need to develop more accurate terminology.

“Self-determination” was first embraced as a unified concept in the UN charter.  Specifically, the charter cites the concept as something exercised by “peoples.” (Neither ”self-determination” nor “peoples” is defined.) Many subsequent human rights treaties cite the concept, reiterating and constructing its “peoples”-vested nature.

Until the end of the Cold War, “self-determination” applied only to colonies. As de-colonization occurred, the term was used to refer to the right of formerly colonized people to independently determine their political status. That status included the system of government that controlled their sovereignty. Notably, a “people” was a colony unit, ignoring internal demographics. This use was reified by many International Court of Justice opinions regarding the independence of emerging nations (e.g. East Timor, Namibia/S.W. Africa, Palestine). (See Damrosch, Henkin, Pugh, Schachter, and Smit, International Law)

Between the USSR’s breakup and today’s Ukrainian crisis, however, the concept has expanded in response to a world nearly devoid of colonies. This is particularly evident in Russian comments that Crimea itself has a right to self-determination. Their comments reflect the increasing contention that individual demographic groups within a sovereign nation have their own right to self-determination. To the extent that a nation’s borders reflect colonial arbitrariness and are shoehorned into facts that exist on the ground, such a contention is not unreasonable. This Russian argument is also broadly consistent with the West’s arguments regarding Kosovo (for example), and even arguments made by Québec. However, shrinking the unit of “people” to sub-sovereign nations raises the difficult question of what suffices for an ethnic minority’s right of self-determination – Voting? Ethnic representatives in Government? Ethnically gerrymandered districts? National languages? Affirmative action programs in hiring and education?

More importantly, it stretches credulity for Russia, Ukraine’s former colonial master, to use Crimean self-determination as justification for re-invading emancipated Ukraine. Furthermore, even construing facts more generously, the revocation of Russian as an official language of Ukraine is only minimal evidence of imminent threat to ethnic Russians in Crimea. Therefore, Russia seems to be using potential future violations of ethnic Russians’ right of self-determination as justification for trampling Ukraine’s sovereignty and Crimea’s existing right of self-determination (e.g. will Russia allow all Crimeans to vote in May’s planned Ukrainian election?).

The incoherence of applying “self-determination” to the modern world increases when Crimea is viewed in context – while the number of sovereign nations continually increases, the colonial power vacuum is simultaneously being replaced by intergovernmental agreements and structures (e.g. EU, NAFTA, OPEC, Putin’s Russia, China, the African Union). It’s not hard to see why such a world needs new, accurate, and precise language to describe policy goals, human rights, and political realities. Indeed, language matters. The more contorted “self-determination” becomes, the more its meaning disconnects from its foundational value: the right of a nation’s people to control their own political processes.

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