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Home> Self Determination: International Law & Practice > Minority Rights Group on Internal Self Determination
Minority Rights Group on Internal Self Determination
The right of self-determination for all peoples was first enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations. The right to self-determination, however, has been the subject of extensive debate and controversy. It is important to note that both the content of the right to self-determination as well as who can assert that right continue to evolve in international law.
The right to self-determination is a collective right; that is, only a "people", not an individual, can exercise the right. Initially conceived, the right to self-determination belonged to the population, or people, of a fixed territorial entity, specifically peoples oppressed by a colonial power. United Nations resolutions, such as the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, and the jurisprudence of the International Court of Justice emphasize the connection between the right to self-determination and peoples of colonized territories. In this context, the right to self-determination is "externally" exercised by secession from a colonial power to form a new state. The right of colonial peoples to external self-determination is well established in international law.
More recently, it has been postulated that the right to self-determination can be exercised "internally" as well. Internal self-determination allows a people broader control over their political, economic, social and cultural development, while stopping short of secession.
The development of a new conception of "peoples" has evolved with the development of the idea of internal self-determination. In this context, the definition of "peoples" is not limited to the population of a fixed territorial entity. Rather, "peoples" also encompasses indigenous groups, and potentially some minorities.
Although there is no fully accepted definition of peoples, references are often made to a working definition proposed by Special Rapporteur Martínez Cobo in his study on discrimination against indigenous populations:
"Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems." - Study of the Problem of Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations, Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities, UN Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1986/7/Add.4 (1986).
The instruments and cases on this website demonstrate the evolutionary character of the right of peoples to self-determination, particularly with respect to growing acceptance that indigenous or minority groups have a right to internal self-determination. As an organization devoted to realizing minority and indigenous rights, MRG strongly supports the right of all peoples to internal self-determination.