Formless as Water, Flaming as a Fire-Some observations on the Theory and Practice of Self-Determination

Discussion Papers


by Gamini Keerawella

October 2004


The concept of national self-determination is a highly contested concept from very outset. It is partly due to its dual parentage, namely nationalism and liberalism. Prior to 1945 it was only a political concept without legal binding. With the incorporation of the principle in the UN Charter it was universalized and legalized. However, there were two competing interpretations at the UN based on de-colonization and representative government. How to define self and what really determined remain highly controversial. How to reconcile the international norm of sovereignty of state and self determination of people became more complex problem with the tide of secessionist movements based on ethno-nationalism. The concept of internal self-determination came as a compromise; but it is also very vague and harbors a wide range of interpretations.

Keywords: Self-determination, Peoples, Sovereignty, Secession, Ethnicity

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