Essay on the Right of Self-determination



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It stands for President Woodrow Wilson’s right of self-determination of nations and nationalities enunciated by him in January 1918 and embodied in his famous Fourteen Points.

He declared that an evident principle runs through all the programmes “I have outlined. It is the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities and their right to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with one another, whether they may be strong or weak.”

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In an address to the United States Congress, he elaborated the point and said, “Peoples and provinces are not to be bartered about from sovereignty to sovereignty as if they were mere chattels and pawns in the game. Peoples 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, which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril.”

President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill in a meeting on August 14, 1941, somewhere on the Atlantic, issued an Eight Point Joint Declaration (popularly known the Atlantic Charter) embodying the objectives for which the Allies were fighting against Germany and explained the principles that would serve as the basis of the future peace of the world.

The United States and Britain solemnly pledged themselves not only to uphold the Rights of Man within their own territorial limits, but to enforce the same throughout the world. It was explicitly stated that neither the United States nor Britain sought territorial or other aggrandisement anywhere in the world and that both the countries would respect the rights of the peoples to choose their own forms of government.

But British Prime Minister’s nebulous note added to his subsequent statement in Parliament confined its application “to the States and nations of Europe now under Nazi yoke.”

This doctrine of national self-rule was accepted and incorporated in the Charter of the United Nations. Chapter XI of the Charter on the Non-Self-Governing Territories fixed the principle of international accountability for the administering powers of these territories would be the progressive development of institutions of self-government

The principle of self-determination had earlier been advocated by some eminent thinkers and statesmen. John Stuart Mill maintained that “wherever the sentiment of nationality exists in any force, there is a prima facie case for uniting all the members of the nationality under the same government, and a government to themselves apart.”

He regarded it as only a logical application of the right of self-determination and expressed the opinion that free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. He explained that it is in general “necessary condition of free institutions that the boundaries of government should coincide in the main with those of nationalities”.

James Bryce considered that the right of self-determination symbolised the struggle of the nationalities for the realisation of liberalism and democracy. Maclver held that the right of self-determination “has prepared the way for our modem democracies since the demand for self-government expands into the demand that the nation really govern itself.”

Appraisal of the Doctrine:

The advocates of a mono-national State, who are numerous, claim that a single-nation State is the monument of common history and culture, common traditions and customs and common symbols and myths and such homogeneity of the people fosters fellowship, cooperation, mutual trust and internal harmony.

A cohesive society ensures promotion and preservation of social heritage, rapid material advancement and growth of civilisation. Hegel expounded the idea of the State as containing all the worth which the human being possessed. It was the guardian of the whole moral world, because organised moral life was to be found only within the State.

To Bosanquet, who was profoundly influenced by Hegel, the State appeared as a complete idea of the realisation of the human capacity. Such a State could only be a mono-national State; the epitome of moral self-sufficiency, it is claimed.

History provides innumerable examples of small independent States that have preciously contributed to the advancement of civilisation. The Greek City-State developed to the stage of a conscious effort directed to the realization of liberty and equal laws. It was a great experiment not only in the art of self-government, but also in quest of virtue.

The Constitution of the Republican Rome rested on four principles: divided authority; a short tenure of office for magistrates; the final authority of the people on all important matters; and the military authority of all magistrates were limited. The relevance of these principles is as important now as it was then.

A mono-national State is a homogeneous and viable State and the possibilities of “cracking and splitting,” a normal feature of a multinational State, are remote, if not non­existent. There is a common centre of loyalty and allegiance and that is the nation.

The mass consciousness of oneness divides the people on economic and political issues and not both horizontally and vertically. A single unified party or a group of parties, agreeing on basic fundamentals, man the government and pursue its policies and programmes vigorously with the electoral mandate at their back.

But if the population, as Mill argued, is composed of various nationalities, the government may resort to the policy of ‘divide and rule’, an old maxim of statecraft to ensure its stability and the handy weapon to carry out its policies and programmes.

If one single nationality happens to command a brute majority, it may even be ruthless in its policies and attitude towards nationalities in minority. Mill also argued that the security of a multinational State is always precarious as soldiers drawn from different nationalities lack the common incentive of oneness of interests and purposes.

The right of self-determination and to decide about one’s own political future has a democratic basis, international recognition, and collective commitment of nations. It sparked the national-consciousness of the peoples yoked to the shackles of the foreign rulers.

From the time of the declaration of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points there had been an upsurge first in Europe and then in Asia, Africa and Latin America resulting into the ultimate liquidation of the Colonial Empires. Within the last five decades the British Empire has become a Commonwealth of Nations. Most of the rich Dutch Colonial Empire was lost when Indonesia became independent and a republic.

The events in Africa proved a last phase in the history of the Colonial Empires. Today, there are just a few stray colonies that exist and the fate of their rulers is as precarious as it was of their predecessors or sin in the network of the defunct Colonial Empire.

The critics of the right of self-determination, though not many, are equally articulate and their criticism is rather trenchant. They assert that it is historically unsound and sociologically untenable.

There are even now many States in which the population is composite and in all such States there is maximum freedom for all and all nationalities are equal participants in the affairs of the State. The notable examples of multinational States are the United States of America, Switzerland and India.

The Swiss people are not a homogeneous whole. They sharply differ in race, language, religion and even to a certain extent in civilisation. Yet in this diversity is to be found unity in the Swiss nation and Switzerland presents to the world the most striking example of not only a united people, but one of the most united, and certainly the most patriotic among the peoples of Europe.

The United States of America and India are two other examples of unity in diversity. When the people of a composite State stand on a footing of equality and the government is just to all, they forget their differences that divide them and with the lapse of time they become integral parts of a cohesive society.

Nor is it entirely true that liberty and free institutions can exist and flourish in a mono-national State alone. To cite, again, the example of Switzerland, one feels inclined to agree with Hans Kohn that Switzerland has “developed a democratic nationalism, similar to the one known in England and the United States, a nationalism made secure and strong by its insistence on individual liberty and on respect for diversity”

Switzerland was the first country in the world to establish republican institutions, and the only one State in Europe which has always been a republic. When the United States of America was born as an independent nation, Switzerland had behind it a republican tradition of some five hundred years.

The impact of Swiss republican institutions had been profound on the United States of America, particularly, and other countries adopting the democratic way of life.

The United States of America itself originally consisted of thirteen Colonies of immigrants drawn from nearly all countries of Europe. By the gradual process of intermingling of different cultures, a new culture, a blend of English and Continental characteristics, conditioned by the environments of the New World, was produced.

Together the new Americans fought their War of Independence and in the Declaration of Independence adopted on July 4, 1776, announced the birth of a new nation. There were in the words of Bluntschli, the conjunction of various peoples who gave to the new State of Americans “breadth and variety” that served “as an alloy to give strength and currency to the nobler metal”.

The delegates of the thirteen original States, assembled at Philadelphia Convention in May 1787, to revise the Constitution of the Confederation, adopted entirely a new Constitution, which, according to Gladstone, was “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”

The new American system of government was based, as James Madison said, “on that honourable determination which animates every votary of freedom to rest our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.” A publication of the United Sates Information Service gives a matter-of-fact summing-up: “The United States is a country of great diversity. Geographically, there is a variety too. And at the core of this varied land are the people the most varied of all, for they stem from countries and social levels throughout the world.

But in spite of many differences, certain traditions freedom, equality, individual rights are common to all and are taught in the home, in the church, and in the schools.”

Lord Acton was a relentless critic of the mono-national State and the right of self- determination. He believed that a multinational State embodied the genius of all the nationalities and consequently it is the amalgam of vigour, promise and advancement.

“The combination of different nations in one State,” he argued, “is as necessary a condition of civilised life as the combination of men in society.

Inferior races are raised by living in political union with races intellectually superior. Exhausted and decaying nations are revived by the contact of a younger vitality. This fertilising and regenerating process can only be obtained by living under one government.

It is in the cauldron of the State that the fusion takes place by which the vigour, knowledge and the capacity of one portion of mankind may be communicated to another.” He believed that a mono- national State is “more absurd and more criminal than the theory of Socialism,” for when political and national boundaries coincide, society ceases to advance.

Acton deprecated the whole doctrine of nationality at the time of its almost unquestioned ascendancy and uttered a solemn warning against the dangers which lurked in it. “By making the State and the nation commensurate with each other in theory,” he wrote in 1862, “this principle reduces practically to a subject condition all other nationalities that may be within the State’s boundary.

It cannot admit them to equality with the ruling nation which constitutes the State, because the State would then cease to be national, which would be a contradiction of the principle of its existence.

According, therefore, to the degree of humanity and civilisation in that dominant body which claims all the rights of the community, the inferior race are exterminated, or reduced to servitude, or outlawed, or put in a condition of dependence.”

Presence of too many nation-States adds to international complications and helps to mount mutual rivalries and conflicts resulting ultimately into a conflagration involving in it even the major States.

Lord Curzon remarked at the Lausanne Conference that the right of self-detennination “is like a two-edged sword and can be admitted only with reservations.” The right of self-detennination fragmented many existing States, immediately after World War I, redrawing the political map of Europe, and gave a fillip to the struggle for freedom in subject countries in Asia and Africa.

During the last four decades, it became a powerful instrument as well as an argument for liberation from their colonial masters. Today, there are 184 member-states of the United Nations.

Disintegration of Soviet Russia in 1991 brought into existence fifteen independent and sovereign states based on ethnicity and it is the most recent connotation of the right of self-determination. But the United States of America and many other countries, including India, are against the division of multi-ethnic states in the name of the right of self- detennination and minority rights.

Addressing a 53-nation commission on Human Rights in Geneva in February 1993, Morris Abraham, the United States Ambassador, explained that self-determination “should not be confused with ethnic isolationism.”

But ironically in today’s world “Self-determination has become the world cry of groups which, for ethnic or religious reasons, are bent on dividing nations.” Self-detennination, he added, was intended for colonial people as self-determination meant the right to be free from imperialist power, often nailing from across an ocean.

“In today’s version, self-determination often is asserted against neighbours within the same territory”. The controversy boils down to this fundamental question of what defines a nation and he himself answered, “If it is common culture, a common language and historical claims to territory, there could be thousands of nations instead of less than two hundred.”

The right of self-determination, “in the sense of right to break away from one’s own nation, does not necessarily attach to a group simply because its individual members share ethnic, religious or cultural history”, he emphasised.

But the birth of so many sovereign States has created an international disequilibrium. Most of these newly-born States are not viable units to firmly stand on their own legs in order to ensure a political and an economic poise.

With their jittering political stability and precarious economic resources they have to perforce lean heavily on some big power, neighbouring or distant, which can come to their rescue and steer them through their predicaments.

This has two results. In the first place, it disturbs the balance of power in the international sphere, and, secondly, it creates an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust with the logical implication of a mad race for armaments.

Every State, big or small, old or new, pursues a vigorous policy of arming itself against any future contingency and, thus, begins the hysteria of war-preparedness. That had been the course of history since the Treaty of Versailles.

Laski has correctly said that nation-States enter into “a competition in the armament of power which acts so as to jeopardise the maintenance of peace, to provoke an atmosphere of nervous hostility, and to induce the smaller States into alliance with powerful neighbours that may win security by that multiplied strength.

So organised, the distribution of nation-States resembles nothing so much as a powder magazine which, as in 1914, a single chance spark may suffice to provoke into conflagration.”

Two other disquieting legacies of the right of self-determination are: the hunger for new markets and the craze for economic self-sufficiency, especially with the newly-born States. Economic self-sufficiency is an alias for economic nationalism and it has more dangerous effects than political nationalism, though in the final analysis they are the two sides of the same coin.

Economic self-sufficiency suffocates the normal channels of trade and commerce and worst of all is unethical restrictions on immigration and fanning of race-hatred. This tug-of-war between the nation-States is another major addition to the already existing vicious circle of international distrust and intrigue.

Whatever be the extent and substance in the criticism of the right of self-determination, it had been and still is the beau ideal of nationalities who aspire for nationhood and statehood. The urge for freedom and independence cannot be suppressed indefinitely by sheer naked force.

It becomes impossible to contain it once it takes the shape of an upsurge. But a workable substitute that can lessen the ill-effects of too many nation- States and, at the same time, solves the problems of nationalities, differing in language, customs, history and their level of cultures, is the mechanism of a federal polity.

It is a device to unify nationalities into a cohesive society and, simultaneously, provides them an opportunity to preserve their separate individuality through the process of adequate and abiding constitutional safeguards. The enlightened public opinion is strongly veering round to this point of view and some even suggest the feasibility of a world federation.

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