The concept of self-determination is a fundamental concept of international law and state sovereignty.  It is the idea that all people have the right to determine their own political fate, and the right to pursue their own “economic, social and cultural development.”

The concept is enshrined in Article 1 of the United National Charter, Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. It has also been affirmed in several International Court of Justice cases, as well as, by various UN Human Rights Committees.

History of Self-Determination

The concept of self-determination has seen a marked evolution since World War I.  In the 20th century, self-determination has been defined by decolonization and the dismantling of vast empires and smaller states alike, such as the U.S.S.R., the unification of Germany, the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the breakup of Czechoslovakia, and the formation of new countries in Africa.

Internal vs. External Self-Determination

The idea of self—determination is twofold.  Internal self-determination signifies the right of a people to choose its own economic, social, and political systems.  External self-determination refers to the right of a people to define their own state or disassociate from an existing state.