Mar 01, 2021

UN Reform Needed to Guarantee Self-Determination

The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) has called for urgent reforms of the United Nations in order for it to guarantee the right to self-determination of peoples. A UNPO submission to the UN Expert Mechanism for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples highlights the failure to sufficiently develop understanding of and mechanisms to protect the right to self-determination, the foundational right of the international system, and shows the negative impact that this has had on indigenous people worldwide. The UNPO's report highlights that, where self-determination is better guaranteed, long-term peace and sustainable development are more likely. As a result, the failure to properly develop and implement the right to self-determination is making the world less sustainable and peaceful. It makes recommendations on how the UN system could be practically reformed in order to better guarantee the right.

The UNPO report was submitted to the UN Expert Mechanism for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples after it called for comment on the implementation of the right to self-determination under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Expert Mechanism is working towards publishing a study on self-determination in 2021. This marks the first time that the Expert Mechanism will have considered directly the right to self-determination since 2007, which itself was the first time that any UN mechanism had directly considered the right to self-determination since the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) issued a short General Recommendation on the right to self-determination in 1996.

The limited consideration of a right that finds itself referenced in the first articles of the UN Charter and the two leading human rights treaties -- the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights -- is indicative of a general trend of the international community to sideline the right to self-determination, arguing that it is either merely an historical artifact of the process to end of European empire after the Second World War, or that it is nothing more than a political right with no true scope or definition. In this context, the Expert Mechanism's initiative to study the right in detail is extremely important.

This process comes at a time in which the right to self-determination is under threat everywhere. As the UNPO's report highlights, States today are too often criminalizing non-violent self-determination movements and making concerted efforts to limit the participation of groups lacking self-determination, particularly indigenous people and minorities, in governance processes related to decisions that impact them, whether it be related to international trade deals, domestic economic development or environmental protection programmes, or the administration of critical services such as education or public health. Meanwhile, at the international level, a campaign is underway by authoritarian states to further restrict participation at the United Nations, and there appears to be a trend to move away from protection of indigenous and minority rights in bilateral human rights dialogues and peacekeeping efforts. The overall result is a less stable, less sustainable world.

The UNPO's report highlights five changes that could be made at the United Nations to better protect the right to self-determination of peoples. Specifically, the UNPO is calling for the following reforms at the international level:

  1. Establish a specific United Nations mechanism to consider the right to self-determination, including for example the establishment of a relevant Special Rapporteur or Working Group, in order to enable the development of more comprehensive jurisprudence and promote a cross- sectional understanding of self-determination that is unable to be fully formulated by existing mechanisms.
  2. Urgently revise United Nations participation mechanisms to ensure that indigenous peoples can safely participate free from politics inherent to the ECOSOC process and from reprisals from governments. Examples of such a reformed process may be taken from the Paris Accords and the opportunity for indigenous peoples to participate without a United Nations approval process.
  3. Better integrate self-determination into other existing United Nations processes including, for example, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the UN Business and Human Rights Forum and discussions around the Sustainable Development Goals, in order to better evaluate how a lack of self-determination can have implications across economic development issues.
  4. Pursue a Secretary General opinion on self-determination in United Nations peace building activities to guide not only the United Nations own activities but also those of major State actors in conflict and conflict-impacted areas.
  5. Create an annual reporting cycle in which United Nations member states can report on progress in the implementation of the various peace-accords or peace-negotiations, including those outlined in this submission, that are ongoing related to indigenous communities