Reimagining Self-Determination

Mar 20, 2019

The right to self-determination is the most misunderstood and least well-developed human right. We are campaigning for a greater understanding of the right as a central instrument of peace and sustainable development and for international standards that give scope, content and certainty to the right.

The Problem

The right to self-determination is perhaps the most misunderstood fundamental human right in part because it has not been sufficiently developed under international law. 

This stands in stark contrast to other human rights, the body of law and jurisprudence around which has been greatly developed over the past 30 years. This causes the right to self-determination to operate more as a “political” than a legal right, fundamentally undermining basic guarantees of legal certainty underlying human rights law. 

Without legal certainty, the right is currently operating as a right in name only. And this has real world practical consequences:

  • States with limited recognition are excluded from the mechanisms of international cooperation, stunting the development of these nations, leaving their citizens more vulnerable and less mobile than those elsewhere, and impeding effective international responses to issues of global concern such as climate change and public health emergencies;
  • At the national level, a failure to understand how to accommodate self-determination equally to all peoples leads to the exclusion and marginalization of segments of the population, leaving them more vulnerable to abuse and discrimination and, in the worst cases, violent repression.
  • In times of conflict, the international system cannot properly adjudicate or mediate between competing claims for self-determination, resulting in, at best, frozen conflicts, rather than long-term sustainable solutions for peace.  

What we are doing about it

These experiences of vulnerability and exclusion are what bind UNPO member nations and peoples together. At UNPO we are campaigning to address the current misunderstanding of the right to self-determination, highlighting how realization of the right to self-determination is at the heart of true implementation of all other human rights, as well as the creation of an effective international world order capable of responding to issues of global concern. 

Through policy research into the intersection between the implementation of the right to self-determination and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we are highlighting the importance of the right as an instrument of long-term global peace, democratic reform and sustainable development. We are in particular focusing on the impact of excluding unrepresented people from national and international decision-making related to development programming and the institutions of international cooperation on the ability to meet the SDGs worldwide, and instances where the realization of the right to self-determination acts as a precondition to safeguarding other human rights at the heart of the SDGs.

Through our international advocacy work we are encouraging more standard setting around the right to self-determination, to modernize and add substance to it and to encourage practical solutions to ensure that disagreements over the implementation of self-determination do not create a negative human impact (for example, encouraging human rights reporting to international forums and recognition of official documents issued by unrepresented nations to guarantee freedom of movement and access to educational opportunities).

And through our training and communications strategies we are empowering non-violent self-determination movements around the world to highlight their causes to policymakers and the public.