All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
– Article 1.1 of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966.
Self-determination became a mantra after WW2 as an accompaniment to the drive for decolonisation. It is a maxim with considerable normative clout, and has often been invoked in international fora including human rights tribunals.
The main problem with the ‘right of self-determination’ is the definition of the word ‘peoples’. In the early days of the paradigm when it was the handmaiden of decolonisation, it was applied rather sweepingly to entire ‘native’ populations, ignoring ethnic/tribal divisions which led to many post-independence interethnic tensions, insurrections and even civil wars (e.g. Biafra). Over the past quarter century, the term has increasingly been applied with reference to indigenous peoples (e.g. the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 2007). However, these may not be homogeneous groups – note, for instance, the plural in the expression ‘First Nations’ as applied to the native inhabitants of North America – casting a shadow of doubt over exactly what groups qualify for the ‘right of self-determination’.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights have on a number of occasions found in favour of specific indigenous communities in cases of exploitation of natural resources in tribal lands (the Yanomani and Ogoniland cases being prominent examples respectively). A particularly weird case was that of the Saramaka people who took Surinam to court over their tribal lands. The Saramaka are actually the descendents of escaped African slaves who had occupied those so-called ‘tribal’ lands for only the past three centuries. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights in their favourable judgment conflated ‘tribal’ with ‘indigenous’ peoples. But how would a counterclaim by a truly indigenous people – an Amerindian tribe – fare if one were ever brought?
The Saramaka: arguably ‘tribal’ but certainly not ‘indigenous’ to South America!
I come from Holland. Is there a Dutch ‘people’ by the rules of this game? Most of us are descended from a Caucasian people who moved into Western Europe some three millennia ago. We developed our own language (‘low German’, some linguists call it – damn cheek!) and a distinct culture based on, amongst other things, windmills, dykes and polders, tulips, wooden clogs, and cheese laced with cumin seeds. Just about anyone on Earth can recognise a portrayal of a traditional Dutch scene. Of course we are a ‘people’! So we qualify for the ‘right of self-determination’ too, don’t we? As indeed do all those other European ‘peoples’ who are linguistically and culturally distinct, right?
Note the deafening silence from the usually vocal human rights lobby.
Not all are silent on the issue. Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Freedom Party (Partij van de Vrijheid, or PVV), in a speech of 29 January at the “Europe of Nations and Freedom” conference held in Milan, put the spotlight on the right of European peoples to uphold their identities both as distinct peoples and collectively as guardians of Western civilisation.
Today our civilisation is … in danger ... We are facing an existential threat.
Our mission is to save and defend our nations and our Western civilisation …. The survival of our freedom, identity and values are at stake.
[W]e ring the bells of the revolution. A democratic and peaceful revolution to regain our national sovereignty…We have to become the masters again of our own borders, our own budgets, our own destiny… A patriot spring is on its way…We want to close our borders to mass immigration…We do not want billions of taxpayers’ money to be spent on Brussels, bailouts and asylum seekers. We want that money to be spent on our own people [i]n our own country…
We will make our countries safe, sovereign and great again.
Geert Wilders: plugging for European peoples’ rights
Funny how I can now hear the mounting chant of “Racist!” from miles away. But it’s actually the talk of self-determination – albeit of the kind not approved of by the so-called ‘cultural elite’. And yet I for one see absolutely no reason why European peoples should not be able to “freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development”, which is precisely what Wilders is advocating.
Defining a ‘people’ becomes very difficult indeed within the context of an immigrant society. Take NZ, where most citizens can trace their roots to Britain, Samoa, Holland, Vietnam or wherever within the past few generations. The target group(s) for the ‘right of self-determination’ become(s) just about impossible to pin down. Do the descendents of settlers such as the Aussie and Kiwi populations of British stock qualify? Of course if you’re Maori, the way you are likely to see it is that the ‘right of self-determination’ is yours and yours alone because you’re ‘indigenous’. So we end up with a multiethnic society in which only some ‘people(s)’ have a ‘right of self-determination’ at the expense of everyone else – a recipe for discord, as readers of these columns will be keenly aware.
The settler-descendents issue is a poignant one for the Afrikaner people of South Africa – descendents of Dutch and Huguenot ‘trekkers’ who completely severed their ties with their home countries as those did not claim the place as a colony (cf. the ‘British South African’). They speak a language derived from 17th-century Dutch and have long developed a strong ‘volk’ identity (many refer to themselves as ‘Boerevolk’). The Afrikaners have been referred to as ‘Africa’s White Tribe’ – indeed the term ‘indigenous’ is not entirely inappropriate in their case. Not surprisingly, they too have been heard demanding the ‘right to self-determination’. Just as unsurprisingly, nobody is listening.
We need to critically reappraise the ‘right of self-determination’ and make a decision about whether to keep it or chuck it. If we keep it, it has to apply to all ‘peoples’ as per the 1966 international covenants. That means we have to define the word ‘people(s)’ in terms that define access to this collective right, which, other than in straight-forward cases where an ethnically distinct indigenous people is occupying traditional tribal stomping-grounds, is just about impossible (I’d be tempted to drop the ‘just about’). But if the right of self-determination does not apply to all, then it should apply to none.
Barend Vlaardingerbroek BA, BSc, BEdSt, PGDipLaws, MAppSc, PhD is at the American University of Beirut and is a regular commentator on social and political issues. Feedback welcome at email@example.com.