The right of self-determination of peoples and nations

Vintage engraving of Edward Winslow’s visit to Massasoit. Massasoit Sachem or Ousamequin (c. 1581 – 1661) was the sachem or leader of the Wampanoag tribe. Edward Winslow (18 October 1595 – 8 May 1655) was a Separatist who traveled on the Mayflower in 1620.

By: Gilberto López y Rivas /I

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 its existence, is consolidated as a fundamental element within the international legal framework, at least formally, since the Second World War, when the United Nations Charter specified equal rights among nations and the “self-determination of the peoples.” The principle of self-determination is established in various international documents, like the Atlantic Charter of 1941, the United Nations Declaration of 1942, the Yalta Conference of 1945, among others. The end of the war conflict in 1945, its ideological and political repercussions, and the liberation movements of the peoples of Africa and Asia during the following decades, brought as a consequence the formation of more than 50 states, which emerged in opposition to the triumphant colonial and neocolonial powers in that war, like the United States, England and France, as well as against other metropolises like Portugal, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Italy and Japan. The principle of self-determination appears formulated as a generic criterion, in which concrete circumstances are the ones in charge of giving precise content to that right and, the majority of times, with little observance on the part of 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 national effervescence that implied, in essence, that each nationality had the right to have its own State. With all that, the principle of nationality emerges from the ideas of the French Revolution and the Constitution of 1791, in which it is pointed out that: “peoples and states shall enjoy equal natural rights and shall be subject to the same standards 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 who become a nation. From the revolutionary theory that the people have the right to elect their own government; in other words, a process that takes place from the bottom to the top, we move on to the vindication that people can equally join one State or another, or they can establish their own State.

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 spreads to all corners of the world, takes the theoretical form of national independence or self-determination, beyond the intention of its original creators. The principle of nationalities on the part of the French revolutionaries was applied selectively and in accordance with the interests of the nascent bourgeoisies, which denied that right to the peoples of their own overseas colonies or to the peoples whose independence was not pertinent to the stability of the European political space.

The principle of nationalities was actually the political expression of the European bourgeoisies in the process of consolidation of their national states and an instrument of struggle against the dynastic systems that had populations and territories at their will. The unification of Germany, Italy, and other European states that were established at the expense of the old Russian, Turkish and Austro-Hungarian multi-national empires was carried out under this principle.

However, in the period of worldwide 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 at this time is not the national State based on territorial continuity, but rather on a multi-national State of a particular type: the neocolonial empire. The capitalists of these metropolises export their capitals to the colonies in the face of the standardization of mass production caused by the Industrial Revolution, in search of new markets and new sources of raw materials. Thus, the European bourgeoisies didn’t have the slightest 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, at the time, theoreticians of the anti-colonial movements would have reproached the old Europe.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada, Friday, May 13, 2022, and Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee


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