The Right to Self-Determination of Peoples and Nations – Part I

Gilberto López y Rivas

The principle of self-determination, understood as the right of peoples and nations to freely choose their political, economic and cultural regime, including the formation of an independent state, and to resolve all questions related to their existence, was consolidated as a fundamental element of the international legal framework, at least formally, after World War II, when the Charter of the United Nations specified the equal rights of nations and the self-determination of peoples. The principle of self-determination is enshrined in several international documents, such as the Atlantic Charter of 1941, the United Nations Declaration of 1942, the Yalta Conference of 1945, among others. The end of the war in 1945, its ideological and political repercussions, and the liberation movement of the peoples of Africa and Asia during the following decades, resulted in the formation of more than 50 states, which emerged in opposition to the colonial and neocolonial powers that triumphed in that war, such as the United States, England and France, as well as against other metropolises such as Portugal, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Italy and Japan. This principle appears to be formulated as a generic criterion, in which concrete circumstances are responsible for giving precise content to this right and, most of the time, with little compliance by the states.

Historically, self-determination has its early origins in the principle of nationalities, which finds the same doctrinal bases that gave rise to the emergence of the modern nation and the principle of national sovereignty. The principle of nationalities was fully formulated in the first half of the last century, at a time of nationalist effervescence which implied, in essence, that each nationality had the right to have its own State. However, the principle of nationality stems from the ideas of the French Revolution and the Constitution of 1791, which states that peoples and states shall enjoy equal natural rights and shall be subject to the same rules of justice. By introducing the principle of popular sovereignty, the French Revolution fundamentally alters the prevailing conception of the State, by unifying the idea of a political unit, together with the formal will of a people that becomes a nation. From the revolutionary theory that the people have the right to choose their own government, that is, a process that takes place from the bottom up, we move to the claim that they can also be integrated into one or another State, or that they can constitute a State of their own.

As a consequence of the democratization of the idea of the state as a product of the popular will and the integration of the citizen into a common political form, the nation-state, nationalism, which spread to all corners of the world, took the theoretical form of national independence or self-determination, beyond the intention of its original creators. The principle of nationalities by the French revolutionaries was applied selectively and in accordance with the interests of the nascent bourgeoisies, which denied this right to the peoples of their own overseas colonies or to peoples whose independence was not relevant to the stability of the European political space.

The principle of nationalities in fact constituted the political expression of the European bourgeoisies in the consolidation of their national states, and an instrument of struggle against the dynastic systems that disposed of populations and territories at their discretion. Under this principle, the unification of Germany and Italy, and of other European states that were established at the expense of the old multinational Russian, Turkish and Austro-Hungarian empires was carried out.

However, in the period of world capitalist expansion, the bourgeoisie of the countries in which the principle of nationalities had been proclaimed, renounced its application, since the ideal of their ruling classes was no longer the national state based on territorial continuity, but a multinational state of a particular type: the neocolonial empire. In the face of the mass production standardization brought about by the Industrial Revolution, the capitalists of these metropolises export their capital to the colonies in search of new markets and new sources of raw materials. And so, the European bourgeoisie had no intention of extending the principle of nationalities to the colonial peoples, expressing the contradictions between the metropolitan ideal and the colonialist realities and practices that anti-colonial movement theoreticians would soon reproach old Europe for.

This piece was published in La Jornada on May 13th, 2022.


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