If we take a short historical journey, we see that the idea of self-determination begins to be applied in an incipient way to territorial claims during the second half of the 19th century. But it will not be until the well-known references made by Woodrow Wilson and Lenin in the context of World War I and the Russian Revolution that the concept of self-determination will finally enter contemporary political language. From then onwards, it will also be part of the repertoire of international law, connected to the creation of new states, but also to other forms of recognition. In the 1945 Charter of the United Nations it will appear as a principle that must guide relations between nations. A few years later, we will find a reference to self-determination as a right, during the decolonisation processes, for example in the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples of 1960. From this moment onwards, the idea of self-determination will be often restricted to colonial contexts, a fact that has conditioned the subsequent debate in contexts that are non-comparable with the situation triggered by the dismemberment of European colonial empires.
A complex legal and political debate
In the debate on self-determination, at least three elements of complexity that have not yet been resolved —either from a theoretical or even legal point of view— can be identified.
On the one hand, a distinction exists between external self-determination —which we can associate with the idea of creating an independent state as a result of its exercise— and the notion of internal self-determination, in the form of recognition or autonomy within the existing state, that is, without leading to the creation of a new state.
Secondly, self-determination has not been consolidated as a positive and general concept at the international level. In practice, its regulation falls within the scope of state sovereignty. And states, in most cases, do not make explicit mention of it; in fact, it is more common that, in their constitutional texts, states refer to the fact that the preservation of their territorial integrity is an inalienable principle. But, already in the 21st century, the International Court of Justice’s subjective opinion in the case of Kosovo pointed out that such principle only refers to relations “between states.” This added a more complex element to the debate, albeit without leading to any recognition of the subjective exercise of self-determination.
Thirdly, neither theory nor international law have defined in a sufficiently specific way what the basic requirements would be for the holder of the right to self-determination to be identified. Within the scope of the theory, and linked to the question of unilateral secession, theories that emphasise the definition of which human groups would be the holders of this right have not resolved either the criteria or mechanisms for establishing the recognition of which groups —peoples, nations, communities...— should be the holders of such right. As far as international law is concerned, we could say that references to self-determination and its subject are confusing and ambiguous. Further, as recognised by a 1996 Council of Europe memorandum on self-determination and secession, the reference to the idea of “people” is tautological, since self-determination would be a right of the “peoples,” but only of those who are already constituted as such: that is, by those who have already self-determined themselves.
The tension brought by such an existing, but controversial and limited, concept in international law becomes even more apparent in view of the demands for secession and the creation of new states that have actually taken place. This is all the more true given that secession, despite being relatively frequent in historical terms, is much less so in the context of regimes that are democratic (at least to some extent). Cases such as those of Norway, Iceland or Ireland, some of them not exempt from violent conflict, are more of an exception. More recently, failed processes such as Quebec or Scotland can be found, as well as unresolved ones such as Catalonia, in which the peculiarity of central state opposition to agree on a bilateral process must be added.
However, the last 100 years have been characterised by a constant increase in the number of attempts to create states, whether they have failed or succeeded, whether or not in the form of waves linked to historical events related to the disappearance of European colonial systems, not to mention the collapse of the Ottoman, Russian or Spanish empires of the 19th and early 20th century. In the late 20th century, countries belonging to different socialist regimes such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union also underwent independence processes, and in some of them, such as the Baltic republics, a kind of historical replica was experienced with the successive loss and recovery of sovereignty in a process of democratic transition. Furthermore, in recent decades the exercise of self-determination has led to a drip of cases, some of which have been successful, resulting in a total of some 10 newly recognised states over the last 25 years.
Self-determination and the climate, health, migration... crises
Thus, despite the lack of definition of the idea of self-determination on both the legislative and legal sides, we see how its assertion is being inextricably linked to a particular model of political organisation —the nation state— and to a legitimisation of the effective exercise of its power —sovereignty. These concepts, fundamental to understand the political evolution of contemporary world, are now subject to almost unprecedented pressures in their magnitude. In fact, the current covid-19 crisis cannot be understood in isolation of them, and even less as a temporary phenomenon. It is one of the reflections of the contemporary global capitalism model, which has other, not least relevant, manifestations such as climate change, even though over the last few months it seems to be left on a secondary level. The forms of political organisation that have dominated the global system over the last 100 years operate in a context to which, besides changes in capitalism and new technologies, those stemming from issues linked to environmental, climatic and health risks now must be added, which often struggle to fit in the parameters of normative discussions on self-determination.
Some states and other territories have been facing the effects of the interaction between natural phenomena and the political and economic system, effects of an unknown magnitude so far that affect assumptions that define concepts such as self-determination. In the Pacific, for example, a state of emergency has been going on for years, which even threatens with the physical disappearance of certain states and autonomous territories, leading to the paradox that we could imagine the existence of formally recognised sovereign states, but whose territory is under threat. Global warming is also affecting the so-called food sovereignty of many countries, due to serious climatic disturbances in the form of extreme drought, floods or plagues. At the same time, many states such as China and those in the Persian Gulf are investing in large areas of arable land around the world, particularly in Africa. In the northern hemisphere, the Arctic meltdown is pushing neighbouring states to reposition themselves in view of the geopolitical implications that the potential opening of new sea routes could have. In the current context, the phenomenon of the covid-19 pandemic cannot be understood without taking into account factors such as transport, energy crisis or high levels of global interconnection.
We must therefore bear in mind the interaction between environmental and economic elements in order to understand the political phenomena that we have experienced in recent years, such as the authoritarian drift of many political regimes, or the emergence of so-called populism, and in general with regard to the major topics of debate in the sphere of political theory or international law. The unforeseeable but incontrovertible effects of climate change as regards migration or the viability of many states, the devastating impact of the pandemic that we are experiencing today, geopolitical changes resulting from globalisation and contemporary capitalism, or the role of new technologies are factors that are putting to the test those great foundations of contemporary political systems, and will bring dramatic change in the way and circumstances in which they are demanded.