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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
(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
(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
Internal de-colonisation and
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
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
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.
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.