The modern international system has been shaped around a few basic principles including territorial integrity and sovereign equality of states, dating back to the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648. These were expanded in time with new concepts such as self-determination, which was first mentioned in the 1860s and was popularized by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov aka Lenin and United States President Woodrow Wilson during the First World War. It was included in the Atlantic Charter of 1941 during the Second World War, thus becoming one of the founding principles of the United Nations system. In practice, it was used in breaking up traditional empires after WWI and colonial empires after WWII.
The principle was also utilized after the end of the Cold War in breaking up the Soviet empire, but was curbed by rising fears of micro-nationalism, which suddenly appeared to threaten most of the existing states in the international system. While the United Nations officially enshrined the right to self-determination in 1960 as a fundamental right for all people with its “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples,” the idea has remained highly contested with the main dispute as to who would qualify to exercise the right of self-determination and how.
While the International Court of Justice stipulated that the right could be used by people, rather than governments, and the U.N. system limits it to people that have a distinct culture, capability for self-governance and a history of self-rule in an identifiable territory, discussions in the post-Cold War era have been concentrated around whether such people living under democratic regimes have the right to recourse to self-determination. The concluding perspective, at least in the West, was that in addition to the above criteria, a clear persecution of or attack against the said people by their own governments should be an important factor in recognizing the right to self-determination.
However, inconsistencies in the international community’s approach to appearing cases have continued since then, as most of states have been responding to various attempts of self-determination not with generally accepted or even self-declared principles but with political expediency, dictated by self-interest at given times.
Since the end of the Cold War, there have been various examples of self-determination attempts, starting with East Timor, most of which have not yet been finalized. In addition to the more known cases of Northern Cyprus, Kosovo, Chechnya, Quebec, Abkhazia, Scotland, South Sudan and most recently Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan, there are other less known cases of Bask Country in Spain, Corsica in France, Biafra in Nigeria, Azawad in Mali, Sahrawis of Sahara and so on. The states have been recognizing or rejecting each case in line with their national interests and global political alignment, which eventually creates further disputes and the problems of “non-recognized entities” in international politics.
Most recently, the two independence referendums in Iraq on Sept. 25 and in Spain on Oct. 1 were declared illegal by the respective governments and were opposed widely internationally. Nevertheless, people living in these regions have made their voices heard on the issue, which will be difficult to ignore and have been quelled temporarily by the national governments only with strong-arm tactics if not direct military intervention. These actions do not of course bode well in the mid-to-long term. While most of international community aligned with the states in these cases, their opinions might change easily and rapidly. So, the dilemma for nation-states remains: How to respond to self-determination demands when the territorial integrity of a state is at stake.