IT IS sad to see a noble word abused, as is the fate--among other good words--of the term "self-determination." Perhaps it has always been abused, in the sense that nationalism tends to run to extremes, but it is being torn to pieces in the United Nations today. The concept which lies behind the term is one which appeals to all human beings. It reaches back to the "consent of the governed" in the American Declaration of Independence; to the "divine right of the people" in the French Revolution; to the democratic nationalism of Mazzini. Woodrow Wilson, in the Fourteen Points and in speeches, made it a basic principle of freedom: "peoples and provinces are not to be bartered about from sovereignty to sovereignty" . . . "every territorial settlement . . . must be made in the interest and for the benefit of the populations concerned." Such words found lodgings in every human heart; they became the foundation of thought and desire for millions of people. There were actual examples in the peace settlement of 1919 at which they could look; and there was a "wild rush" of nationalism after World War I, which soon became lost in other things.

There is today another wild rush, and in it the United Nations is inevitably entangled. The term "self-determination" was crowded into Article 1 of the Charter without relevance and without explanation; and upon that basis delegates are today making fantastic claims. Their irresponsibility alienates Americans who have sympathized with the struggles of many peoples for independence; they are typical of wild claims being made in other fields, such as Human Rights--so irresponsible as to arouse the fears of the American Bar Association, for example, and to induce the Senate to consider the Bricker amendment to the Constitution, which in reaction swings disastrously far toward the other extreme. The speeches go far beyond anything hitherto thought of in connection with self-determination; it is not merely independence which the speakers demand, but perfect satisfaction for all human desires. Furthermore, they would limit the claims to self-determination to colonial peoples only; and thus self-determination is made the basis of combination against the colonial Powers and against the "domination of the white race."

Even so, most Americans--and probably most whites, with some shame for past misdeeds or realization of present needs of Asian and African peoples--have some sympathy with the feeling which inspires this attitude. The trouble is that the movement thus far has no standards, no common sense, indeed, no clear objectives. It seems chiefly an urge, born of a resentment which is natural enough, to "get at" the colonial Powers. But these Powers feel that they have much reason to feel pride in achievement. They can justly claim that they have contributed greatly to the advancement of the peoples who now denounce them; indeed, it is that very advancement which has made colonial peoples realize that they could have more, and has given them such ability to stand alone as they may now have. These Western Powers do not believe that they have held back the process of self-determination unduly. After all, they have freed at least half a billion people to manage their own affairs within the last decade.

There is no gain to anyone in pressing every possible cleavage in the community of nations, nor in reducing the strength of the free world by breaking it up into helplessly weak units. The fears and desires of smaller states and of non-self-governing peoples deserve consideration, and valid needs should be met; but the community of nations to which the apostles of fragmentation appeal also has rights and needs.

The concept of self-determination is not a simple one, and it has always defied definition. It is a two-edged concept which can disintegrate as well as unify; consider the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There has never been a judge to pass upon its claims; indeed, there has never been a law by which judgment could be issued. The textbooks of international law do not recognize any legal right of self-determination, nor do they know any standards for determining which groups are entitled to independence; on the contrary, international law holds that a state which intervenes to aid a rebellious group to break away from another state is itself committing an illegal act. Furthermore, if and when a group has factually established itself, other states have no obligation to recognize it as a legal power, a sovereign state. The emphasis has been upon the word "self;" the group itself must fight through to what it wanted. Secession or revolution could not be recognized as a legal right. There was no community law, or judge, or machinery, to uphold a claim of self-determination.

Today, the community of nations is organized--a fact which profoundly modifies all concepts of "self." The United Nations exists, and appeals are in fact being made to it. It should have criteria and methods by which to measure and satisfy the hunger of peoples to control their own political destinies; but the Charter of the United Nations does not empower it to handle such claims. The United Nations has no authority in the matter, in a legal or constitutional sense; it is not authorized to issue a ukase freeing a people from a state and setting up a group as independent; it cannot establish rules or criteria for self-determination which are legally binding on anyone. On the contrary, the famous Article 2, Paragraph 7, reaffirming the rule of international law mentioned above, forbids the United Nations to intervene in the domestic affairs of any Member; and surely, providing self-government or independence to a part of a state would be interfering in the domestic affairs of that state.

It is apparent, however, that the United Nations can build up tremendous pressures in support of its recommendations--pressure strong enough, for example, to tear Indonesia away from the Netherlands and give to it the independence which it sought, in the face of the indubitably correct legal argument of the Dutch that all this was contrary to the Charter. The combination of political forces which led to independence in this case, while it was denied in other cases, is worthy of more study than it has received, for it was clearly a political decision and set a grave precedent. (To say this, be it noted, is not to comment on the rightfulness of the Indonesian claim; there was no way of determining whether it was rightful or not.) Not only in this case, but in many others, United Nations organs have ridden roughshod over the domestic-questions clause of the Charter. In practice, granted a proper majority, that obstacle may now be regarded as removed; an organ of the United Nations can do whatever it has the votes to do. One may rejoice in achievement, or grieve (as the writer is inclined to do) at the disregard for law thus shown; but, legal or not, the United Nations has shown that it can be a powerful force for the satisfaction of claims for self-determination.

One more point should be noted here: if the decision on such a claim is made by the United Nations, it is no longer correct to speak of self-determination; and this changes the whole nature of the inquiry. A group, a people, may as heretofore set up its claim and seek to justify it in one way or another; but if the group employs force, as has been necessary in the past, it may be charged with having committed a threat to or breach of the peace. It is no answer (though it should be a legal answer) to say that Article 2, Paragraph 7, forbids the United Nations to interfere in a civil war. If that Article can be overridden to help the claimant group, it can be overridden to help the colonial Power. This consequence of appealing to the United Nations--either not seen or not acknowledged in speeches made before it--is, indeed, a gain; it is a gain, that is, if the United Nations can find fair and responsible principles and procedures for answering claims of self-determination, rather than having them settled by local wars which may result in world war.


Who are these "peoples" or "nations" that are entitled to self-determination by the United Nations? The General Assembly, it must be recalled, instructed the Human Rights Commission to insert into the proposed Covenant on Human Rights the exact words: "All peoples shall have the right of self-determination." This, incidentally, was a Soviet initiative, though the Soviet resolution itself was not adopted. The Commission, after some uncertainty, added the words "and nations" but it did not identify either of these units which have the right. No answer, indeed, can be found in the literature of self-determination, though this would seem to be a necessary starting point. Doubtless, the real test is the desire of a group to live together under their own chosen political system. But how is this desire to be measured or ascertained? Should the United Nations listen to the loudest voices? How can it know that they truly represent the wishes of the people? Should the U.N., in its political wisdom, say yes, Indonesia has the genuine desire for independence but no, the Republic of the South Moluccas does not have it? Should the U.N. hold a plebiscite to determine the wishes of the people? This costs money and effort: how can the U.N. make the preliminary decision that the effort is worth while? And, granted the plebiscite, should the will of the majority prevail? And if a desire is ascertained, shall it be granted solely because there is a desire?

Such questions have not burdened the United Nations orators. Occasionally, a definition is attempted, but no agreement has ever been reached. The representative of Egypt asserted that the definition would be found in international law, but I have never been able to find it there. The delegate of India spoke of "large compact national groups;" Jugoslavia thought that the people should have territory and be related "ethnically, culturally, historically or otherwise." Others insisted that the group must be widely separated from the parent state by distance. The delegates apparently took the view expressed by the Polish delegate who said that "the search for definitions was unnecessary as self-determination should be proclaimed for all."

Indeed, the arguments advanced and the action taken would seem to give to each individual human being a right to be an independent country. It is the purpose of the Covenant on Human Rights to state the rights of individuals, rights which the world organization is to protect; among them is now the right of self-determination. The argument was advanced during the debates that each individual should have the right to uphold the group of his choice in its struggle for independence; the Jugoslav delegate felt that "exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination could [not] be assured unless every individual was entitled to exercise it." A United States amendment to say "in accordance with constitutional processes" was voted down. This would seem to establish a legal right to engage in revolution; it would leave us in the same anarchy as before, except that the individual could legally fight not only against the parent state but against other individuals on behalf of the group which he supports. It cannot be assumed that all "peoples" want the same thing.

But if there is no definition of "people" or "nation" to guide us, there is a very definite and significant limitation set. If one thinks back to earlier uses of the term, one finds that "self-determination" applied only to nationalistic minority groups, such as Czechoslovakia or Poland. Wilson and his colleagues--among whom were some wise experts and some wise statesmen--were thinking in terms of European minorities, and not of colonies. They thought of colonies as, for the most part, unable to stand alone in the strenuous conditions of modern civilization and therefore in need of a period of tutelage before being considered for independence. But the original Soviet resolution, in the United Nations, differentiated between Non-Self-Governing Territories which were to be assisted toward "national self-determination," and national minorities which should have only the right to use their native tongues and cultures. It was explained in connection with the resolution which supplanted this one that some delegations were afraid to include the word "peoples" because minorities might thus be encouraged to ask for self-determination. Though the clause finally adopted and incorporated into the Covenant on Human Rights says "all peoples and all nations," the states which voted for it, as the debates clearly show, were thinking only in terms of colonies. The colonial Powers opposed this discrimination and argued for universal application of the principle. They were defeated, and the rest of the article concerning self-determination stipulates no more than that all states should promote self-determination for Non-Self-Governing Territories. This was adopted in the Human Rights Commission by a vote of 13 for (including the United States) and four against, with one abstention.

Thus self-determination is to be applied only to colonies, and is identified with anti-colonialism--a sad comedown for a great principle once thought applicable to all mankind. If it is a fundamental human right, as its inclusion in the Covenant would indicate, why limit it to colonies? One can sympathize with colonial peoples who are oppressed; one can understand the resentment of others now independent, who support those not yet self-governing or even make claims on their behalf. But colonial peoples are not the only ones who have suffered mistreatment or injustice; why should there not also be sympathy with equally oppressed groups in the Soviet Union, or in the United States, if they can be found? One can argue that the U.N. cannot do everything at once, and that it should deal first with colonial claims; but it might be difficult to show that these claims are more urgent than those of groups within metropolitan areas.

In sum, we have this limitation: only "colonial" peoples are to be allowed to base claims on the Charter term "self-determination." But we still do not know what a people or a nation is; indeed, we do not know what a colony is.


What do the delegates themselves mean when they claim self-determination? What aims, what objectives, have they in mind? In the past, the popular assumption has been that what was sought was national independence--though it is to be doubted whether Wilson and his associates went so far in 1919. They were thinking rather of autonomy and protection for national minorities; the independence of several states resulted probably from the circumstances of disintegration at the time rather than from their conscious aim or effort.

More broadly, self-determination has been defined as the right of a people to determine their own political destiny: this might mean incorporation into a state, or some measure of autonomy within a state, or a somewhat larger degree of freedom in a federation, or commonwealth, or union; or it might mean complete independence. But today, if we may judge by U.N. debates, the claim leaps far beyond this. What is sought is not merely independence; this is rather a minimum. The delegate of Pakistan interpreted self-determination to mean that weak peoples ought not to be dominated by strong peoples. To Jugoslavia it meant protection against threats to independence emanating from other states. Even the United States asserted that the doctrine applied not only to peoples which have not yet attained their independence but also to politically independent States which needed protection from external pressure, threats, the use of force, and subversive activities. . . .

That would be quite a job for the United Nations! Thus self-determination becomes collective security; but the claims reached much further, to include rights adumbrated in the Commission on Human Rights in the economic and social field-- rights which go so far that the United States has now announced that it will not accept the Covenant of Human Rights. The delegate of Chile demanded full economic sovereignty; self-determination in his view

should enable any State in a condition of economic subordination to recover full sovereignty, by acquiring complete control over its own natural resources, even if this meant expulsion or nationalization of certain undertakings.

Subsequent discussion revealed well-grounded fears that this meant a right to confiscate all foreign investments or, at any rate, to compensate for them at the pleasure of the state in which they happened to be found.

With such aims, self-determination loses all meaning, for it is extended to cover everything. Anything a "people" or a "nation" (provided it is a colony), whether already independent or not, may desire it is entitled to have. It would include the right to the protection of collective security, and full protection for all nationalistic economic actions. No law would be allowed to stand in the way of what a group desired--or what an individual desired. The United Nations, which is asked to furnish these guarantees, would thus become the midwife of all groups desiring to be politically born. Its purpose would no longer be to uphold peace and justice, but to assure to each "people" or "nation" anything it wanted, regardless of what other "peoples," having the same right, might want. And who would pay for all this? The very Powers against whom this nationalistic movement is directed, the only ones who have the economic, political or military strength to establish such guarantees.

This does not appear to be a practical approach to a solution. Let us assume that the feeling for self-determination is a worthy one; and let us assume that appeals should be addressed to the United Nations. Both assumptions are, I think, sound. What then? The problem is a new one in history, for never before has the organized community of nations been called upon to decide-- upon principle rather than by force--when a group is entitled to independence or to self-government or to economic sovereignty, or whatever that group means by self-determination. Some scattered precedents may be found: in the League of Nations Mandates system; in provisions by which a territory becomes a state in the United States; in methods by which a people have been advanced to membership in a federation, commonwealth or union, as tried by the Netherlands, England or France. And some vague principles are to be found in the Charter of the United Nations as regards Non-Self-Governing Territories or Trust Territories.

A promising study has been made by the U.N. in connection with this question of Non-Self-Governing Territories. By Article 73 of the Charter, states administering such Territories are expected to make reports on them to the United Nations, but the Charter does not say how one is to know when a group has become "self-governing." The General Assembly, however, set up a "Committee on Factors" which has tentatively reported on the qualifications for self-government or for independence. As to the latter, it suggested "full international responsibility" for its external or internal acts; eligibility for membership in the U.N.; power to negotiate and to sign international instruments, and freedom "to enter into arrangements concerning its national defense." Internally, there should be "complete freedom of the people of the territory to choose the forms of government which they desire;" freedom from interference by another government as to internal affairs; and "complete autonomy in respect of economic, social and cultural affairs."

Many of the recognized sovereign states of the world today could not measure up to these standards; and the Committee noted that no one of the qualifications was indispensable, and that the particular combination of them needed to be known in each particular case could not be determined in advance. If one is thinking in terms of self-determination, some confusion may arise at this point. The question before the Committee was: How may we determine when a group has become self-governing? Bearing in mind that the Charter does not require reports for a self-governing group, one can understand that anti-colonial delegations would seek to set the qualifications as high as possible, so that the Non-Self-Governing Territory (i.e. colony) would not escape from the jurisdiction of the United Nations by becoming self-governing. But the setting of such high standards might be disastrous to the colony, from the viewpoint of self-determination, since the colony might not be able to measure up to them.

We do not have an answer, though perhaps we have some help, from this Committee. From the viewpoint of a group claiming self-determination, the most important factor would seem to be a common desire; without this, there is no foundation. At this point the problem of the United Nations would be procedural--how is it to ascertain and measure that desire? Perhaps it would have enough information before it to decide; perhaps it would need to send out a commission of inquiry; after that, a plebiscite might be needed. Presumably, a territorial basis for the group would be essential. Assuming all this--desire, unity and territorial basis--is this enough to justify the United Nations in saying that independence--or whatever is called for in the name of self-determination--should be granted? The assertion is often made that this is enough, and that what may happen thereafter does not matter: the group wants independence so badly that it does not care whether it will be swallowed up immediately by an aggressive neighbor, or what vicissitudes of an economic or political character it might be called upon to endure. The mere fact that it wants independence and is willing to take the risks involved is said to be enough.

But of course the United Nations must take other matters into consideration. Its primary responsibility is the welfare of the whole community which it represents. Independence for an ambitious group may be dangerous for the community of nations. The new state may be weak or quarrelsome, and bring upon itself the attack of a covetous or injured or aggressive neighbor; the United Nations nevertheless would then be called upon to defend it. The group seeking independence may be located at a strategic point which the community cannot afford to have weakly held; it may control a strategic waterway of wide importance; it may have within its area natural resources which it is incapable of developing but which the community needs. Does the mere fact that resources vital to the whole community happen to be located within an area to which a group wants exclusive title require the community to surrender control over it?

Other factors must also be considered, including those which affect the happiness of the claimant group itself. Is it able to maintain itself, in an economic sense? If not, the people themselves suffer, and the United Nations may have to support it financially. Should the United Nations make the ability of the new state to protect certain human rights a condition for providing it with self-government or independence? It will be recalled that such conditions were set with regard to European minorities; they would appear to be desirable for a colonial people, who might be misled by false prophets. Some guarantee of democratic procedure seems necessary also, otherwise self-determination would have betrayed itself. And finally--a matter of much importance to the community of nations--there should be some assurance of the ability and willingness of the new group to meet its responsibilities as a member of that community. Will it be disposed to respect the rights of others, or will it selfishly claim "full economic or political sovereignty" for itself, regardless of the needs of the community?

These are not academic questions. Already Libya, created by the United Nations without consideration of such questions, is in economic difficulties. Italian Somaliland has been promised its independence in ten years' time; this is better, for it will during that time be taught something of governing itself; but there is no assurance that it will have learned its lesson or be able to pass an examination. Indonesia is struggling with both economic and political problems, some of them of its own making.

The duty of the United Nations to guard the welfare of the whole community appears to be in direct conflict with its supposed obligation to produce more and more infant states and turn them loose upon the streets. Three-fourths of its members now are weak states, in the sense that they are unable to contribute to its support in any effective military or economic way; each of them, however, has a vote. Having little responsibility for what results, they are tempted to vote through half-thought-out enterprises, the consequences of which must be faced by the few members strong enough to face them. These members cannot be expected to welcome greater responsibilities forced upon them by the additional votes of other weak states. The United Nations as an organization could be brought to collapse by such disproportionate burdening.


Self-determination, in other words, has reached the age of responsibility. It cannot be allowed to any group for the sole reason that the group chooses to claim it. The United Nations must inquire whether there is enough homogeneity or unity or common desire to hold the new state together; whether it has economic resources and political capacity; how far it can defend itself against attack. And the United Nations must provide some criteria for its own judgment, so that it may act fairly and consistently; it should provide methods of training and testing, to be sure that the new state, when established, will not be a burden on the community, and bring unhappiness to those within it. How far the United Nations should demand democratic forms of government is a difficult question, not only because of the various meanings now attached to the word, but also because there is no assurance that man will not find another form of government more pleasing to him. It does seem clear, however, that self-determination implies a decision based upon the will of the people in the group and that, therefore, some means should be provided by which the people can express their will.

Other difficulties stand in the way of finding criteria for judgment. In view of the current tendencies in the United Nations to take law lightly, one can hardly believe that rules of law could be laid down for the satisfaction of claims based on self-determination--though decision by law might be much more satisfactory to the claimant. The decisions made by the U.N. will doubtless be political ones; and the only hope for just and reasonable solutions must therefore depend upon the attitude of member states. That hope must remain slight indeed, if their delegates continue to make the extravagant, impractical and irresponsible claims which have so far characterized the debates--claims which do not at all consider the needs of the community of nations, or even the welfare of the peoples concerned.

Another great difficulty is to be found in the striking historical fact--commented upon by Lloyd George and others in connection with the 1919 settlement--that when a group has maintained a claim for self-determination and struggled under that banner to independent national existence, it immediately abandons the principle for which it struggled and seeks to ingurgitate any accessible claimant to the same right. This autophagous tendency can be illustrated from Napoleon, from Prussia, from Poland; Hitler called upon the principle to justify the unification of all Germans; the Soviet Union employs it today for propaganda against the West. It can also be illustrated, unfortunately, from the recent actions of Asian states with whose claims to independence Americans have had deep sympathy. India marched her armed forces into Hyderabad even while the Security Council was hearing the plea of the latter for protection, and in the face of the legal right of the princely states (under the India Independence Act of 1947) to remain independent if they wished; she rejected arbitration which had been promised under the Stand Still Agreement, promised a plebiscite which was never held, and drove out Hyderabadi from their offices, property and jobs. Hyderabad is now the center of Communism in India. The pressure is being applied also in Kashmir, where the opposition of Pakistan makes the absorption slower; and she is reaching out now for Portuguese and French territories. This is inconsistent behavior for an outstanding champion of self-determination and anti-imperialism.

In the case of Indonesia the inconsistency is both hers and that of the United Nations. The agreement establishing Indonesia as an independent state provided for a federation with autonomous parts, but Indonesia almost at once converted herself into a unitary republic. The group calling itself the Republic of the South Moluccas, deprived thus of its autonomy, claimed self-determination; but Indonesia, forgetting her recent reliance upon that principle, denied the claim by force and is also reaching out for New Guinea. In the United Nations, the Security Council, which had turned a deaf ear to Hyderabad, labored diligently, in the face of international law and Article 2, Paragraph 7, of the Charter, to achieve "self-determination" for Indonesia. Why one, but not the other? Of course an easy answer will be given to that question: Indonesia was a "colony," whereas others were not. Only colonies can claim self-determination and the support of the United Nations. But the others, too, are human beings. It is most confusing to find the United States, which gave independence to the Philippines and self-government to Puerto Rico, scorning Hyderabad, supporting Indonesia, and on the fence as to Tunisia. Now, on the edge of Central Asia, a new group calling itself Pakhtunistan lays claim to a third of the territory of Pakistan; others will come along.

It is sad that anti-colonial resentment should have so distorted a noble principle; and it is also understandable. But we can plead with those who feel this resentment to consider the consequences of their extreme demands; and we can plead with all states to vote in the United Nations with regard to some consistent principles, rather than in accord with the political opportunism of the moment. Perhaps the term "self-determination" should be dropped, now that the United Nations is called upon to do the determining, and we should think in terms of such separate problems as self-government, independence, collective security, economic security and human rights--all in the framework of the safety and welfare of the world community. Peoples who, in the future, call upon the United Nations to give them control over their own destinies, invoking the right of self-determination, must be answered in terms of principles on which they can educate themselves in the hope that, when they have proven themselves, the United Nations will support them. Surely it is time for the United Nations, and for its member states both large and small, to take a deep breath and examine the premises on which they are acting in these important matters.

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