S Sathananthan

Paper presented at the Seminar on Self-determination and Conflict Prevention Sponsored by Centre UNESCO de Catalunya and the UNESCO Etxea UNESCO Centre of the Basque Country Palais des Nations, Geneva. March 22-23, 1999.

De-colonisation and self-determination
There are approximately one hundred and fifty national liberation movements in the world today. Their aim is national self-determination for their peoples, who seek varying degrees of political autonomy within, or outright independence from the respective sovereign States. Many of them have matured into armed resistance in direct response to military repression by States.

The February 1990, UNESCO meeting of 'Experts on Further Study of the Rights of Peoples' was an early attempt to explore the complexities of the right to self-determination. The Martin Ennals Symposium on Self-Determination, co-sponsored by the College of Law, University of Saskatchewan and International Alert in March 1993, examined anew the principle of, and the right to self-determination. A further attempt was made at a meeting on Self-Determination, Sovereignty, Territorial Integrity, and the Right to Secession, convened by the United States Institute of Peace in conjunction with the United States Department of State Policy Planning Staff in February 1995.

More recently, the deliberations of the November 1998 UNESCO conference on The Implementation of the Right to Self-determination as a Contribution to Conflict Prevention concluded inter alia that "the peaceful implementation of the right to self-determination in its broad sense is a key contribution to the prevention and resolution of conflicts". The negation or abridgement of the right to internal self-determination, that is, self-determination short of independent Statehood, was viewed as the primary cause of national liberation movements.

The principle of self-determination had been incorporated into the United Nations Charter in 1945 and it referred to the right of each State to pursue its interests unhindered by other States. The term "State" applied to a sovereign power and not to colonies, which the respective colonising State defined as integral parts of its own territory. The Portuguese claim over Goa was case in point.

Between 1945 and 1960, numerous anti-colonial movements emerged in Asia and Africa. But each colonising State laid claim to its colonial territories as extensions of its own territory. And the colonising State often rejected demands for political independence by its colonies on grounds that "secession" is a violation of its territorial integrity. As President Nelson Mandela perceptively noted, the oppressor determined the mode of struggle. Many of the movements were compelled to resort to armed struggles and eventually won independence.

As more and more newly independent States took their seats in the United Nations, the balance of voting power within the organisation shifted in their favour. It was in their interest to regularise de-colonisation, and law followed reality. A new meaning was added to the right to self-determination in the December 1960 UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Peoples. Clause 2 provided as follows: "All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development". The right to independent Statehood was guaranteed by Clause 4, which enabled the "dependent peoples…to exercise peacefully and freely their right to complete independence, and the integrity of their national territory shall be respected".

The dominant peoples of the States, whose collective interests was embodied in the Declaration, limited the right to Statehood to the context of external de-colonisation, that is, independence for each colonial territory from foreign colonial rule. Clause 6 categorically stated: "Any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations." The dominant peoples jointly adopted the argument advanced earlier by colonising States, that State borders were inviolable, and unilaterally applied it to their respective subordinate peoples.

Moreover, Clause 6 arbitrarily abridged the inalienable right of subordinate peoples to national self-determination by excluding external self-determination, the right to independent Statehood. It must be emphasised that the national aspirations of subordinate peoples inhabiting the territories of the member-States of the United Nations were in most instances not reflected by the contents of the Declaration.

Indeed Clause 6 effectively legitimised internal colonialism. While colonialism had de-empowered all peoples within each colonial territory, it also reproduced the colonial centre-periphery relationship typically between the dominant and the subordinate peoples. In each post-colonial instance State power passed invariably into the hands of the dominant people(s) and the new State became the embodiment of their national aspirations, expressed by the official language, State religion and so on.

The subordinate peoples became in effect internal colonies of the States, controlled by the dominant peoples. Their demand for internal de-colonisation, that is, the re-empowerment of the colonised and now subordinate peoples, is today the ideological core of the right to self-determination, which does NOT exclude external self-determination.

The roots of conflict therefore lie in the insistence that subordinate peoples must restrict their political horizon to internal self-determination, that they must seek their political destiny within the parameters of the political power of dominant peoples and the confines of State borders drawn by colonialism. The emergence of new States in the post-Cold War era weakened the arguments in defence of the inviolability of State borders. So the alleged threats to peace were dredged up to counteract the demand of subordinate peoples for external self-determination.

Peace and self-determination
The 1995 meeting convened by the United States Institute of Peace articulated this concern for peace. The conference report explained that the Institute, "recognising the challenge to world peace that demands for self-determination present", invited "lawyers, political scientists, and regional experts…along with relevant policy makers" to the deliberations. The participants concurred that "the unchecked proliferation of new States is not a desired outcome". They also stressed for good measure the inviolability of State borders and viewed the exercise of the right to external self-determination as dangerously de-stabilising and an imminent threat to world peace.

The sweeping statements cynically criminalised national liberation movements in general as subversive, "secessionist forces". The unspoken corollary is that the political and/or military repression of such movements is justified and necessary in the interests of maintaining peace.

In other words, the legitimate exercise by a people of the fundamental right to external self-determination was caricatured as a threat to peace. The absurdity of this formulation requires no elaboration.

On the contrary, the primary threat to peace is the obstinate adherence to State borders and the resulting exclusion of the right to external self-determination. What is required for conflict prevention is instead the acceptance of the following principles.

(a) The right to self-determination is inalienable and includes the right to independent Statehood.

(b) Re-empowerment is the fundamental right of subordinate peoples. The scope of re-empowerment must include, if they so wish, the right to external self-determination.

(c) The borders of States are neither God-given nor permanent. They must be subject to change in response to the exercise of the right to self-determination by subordinate peoples and during the course of internal de-colonisation.

Internal de-colonisation and State-formation
Distinguished Political Geographers have predicted that the number of States represented in the United Nations would increase to at least three hundred by the year 2010. Given the intensity and spread of national liberation movements across the globe, that prediction would seem an understatement. Indeed, on the eve of relinquishing his position as United Nations Secretary-General, Mr Boutros Boutras-Ghali estimated that the member-States in the organisation would number four hundred by the year 2020.

Bangladesh was an early challenge to the refusal to recognise the right to external self-determination. The independence of the former Soviet Republics, Slovakia and Eritrea is well known. Scotland, East Timor and Tamil Eelam are examples of peoples waiting to take their place as independent States.

The experience of the national liberation movement in Tamil Eelam demonstrates the relevance of the right to external self-determination. The Tamil people are victims of ethnocide, of the denial of linguistic and cultural rights; they are subject to demographic manipulation and military aggression of genocidal proportions at the hands of the Sri Lankan State, controlled by the dominant Sinhalese people.

It would be ill conceived, for example, to offer the Tamil people effective implementation of internal self-determination by the Sinhalese-controlled State. It is in effect a promise to reform the oppressor. History does not vindicate such a utopian scenario.

More importantly, the right to external self-determination is not contingent on national oppression, which no doubt is one condition under which a people may exercise the right. Fundamentally, the right to external self-determination is self-evident just as a people is self-defined.

The referenda held in Quebec underline the ontological nature of the right to external self-determination. It would be difficult to argue that the demand for independent Statehood in Quebec is a result primarily of the ineffective implementation of internal self-determination. Rather, it is the product of the sense of political destiny, of the desire of a people to freely determine their future.

Concretely, it refers to the political objective of the people of Quebec to secure State power necessary for the exercise of their collective rights, which is the essence of the right to self-determination. The British Government has in effect confirmed this principle by the referenda held in Scotland and Wales, which are widely interpreted as the first steps to the eventual independence of the Scottish and Welsh peoples.

Canada and Britain are by most criteria eminently democratic societies. But the referenda held in the two countries conclusively demonstrate that the implementation of internal self-determination has failed to satisfy the national aspirations of the Quebec, Scottish and Welsh peoples.

It would require a galactic leap of faith to assert that the less democratic post-colonial States in Asia and Africa would be able, or could be induced, to implement internal self-determination more effectively. Indeed such assertion is little more than a disingenuous ploy to de-legitimise the right to external self-determination.

It is by now obvious that most national liberation movements cannot be pacified with offers of internal self-determination. The borders of most States, which are in fact multi-national, would in all likelihood be re-drawn over the next few decades. Under the present dispensation, the process in almost all instances is bound to be violent due to resistance by the dominant peoples who control the States.

The Canadian and British precedents encourage us to propose that an international mechanism be set up to oversee and facilitate the non-violent birth of new States. Such a mechanism should provide legal recognition to national liberation movements as non-State actors and thereby preclude States from criminalising the movements as "terrorism". It must include mandatory and supervised referenda to crystallise and ascertain the will of peoples and thereby pre-empt the States from generating conflict by repressing the movements.

Conflict prevention, therefore, is primarily and inextricably linked to an internationally managed re-empowerment of subordinate peoples. It is a facet of internal de-colonisation and a process that does not exclude, and in most instances will require, the exercise of their right to external self-determination.

 18 March 1999

About the author
Dr Sachithanandam Sathananthan read for the Ph D degree at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge. He is the Founder-Secretary of The Action Group Of Tamils (TAGOT) in Sri Lanka.

BulletUpArrow.gif (883 bytes)