Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: The nebulous right of self-determination

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


paul scott said...

Self determination claims go with invalid assumptions .
@ all pigs are equal but kune kune have been oppressed and so are more deserving
@ My stone age society will be imposed over your flabby European Society
@ I was here before you, and so I have superior rights
@ My precious race now vanishing is indigenous and has predominance over your flabby Colonial origins

Nothing could be more obvious than the invalid assertions given as the right to racial Self Determination in New Zealand .
The time gap between the arrival of different people @ indigenous peoples to New Zealand, is only several hundred years,
As the author here points out, the concepts of Indigenuity and Self Determination are politicised and socialized,
so they mean whatever one wants.
And somehow the rights to self determination can be expressly applied to some but not other groups.
Therefore, within Societal politics the natural rights of some have preference over others .
@ all pigs are equal but some pigs are more equal

The more equal than others claim, goes right up the tree and it becomes attached as a wishful application to
my Indigenous group / my Ethnic group / my Genetic inheritance group / my Political thinking group / my Minority group.

I was born and indigenous to my family of Mother and father, two brothers and sister. By the time I was twelve I told my father
that by right I should have a bicycle, because all the other kids had bicycles. By the time I was 15 I thought I had the right to self determination.
My Father gave me what he called the “ Me and Me Rights” lecture.
It basically outlined that if “Me and Me rights“ were applied, as required by Me, the rest of the family would have less. Then he was miserable enough to remind me that he got here first, and he had structured and paid for the entire family

Brian said...

Self Determination Right or Wrong?
At long last someone has the courage to challenge those who would cleverly box us all into the filing cabinets of the United Nations; to be used as they think fit, and for whatever purpose suits their relevant theories.
Here in God’s own any idea of a non Pacific culture is relegated immediately to the bottom of the ethnic pile seemingly standard practice in an ex Colonial power. Now we have a Parliament totally under the power of Indigenous Rights, which precluded any critical discussion known simply as unacceptable Racial Comment.
This in New Zealand results in the non-reporting of such outspoken critics as Dutch Leader Geert Wilders; one would have thought that one major news outlet would have informed us of his speech (Instead we had to wait for Barend to give this side of the story) It seems patently obvious that our Media has neither the intestinal fortitude to publish, or are somehow gagged in presenting the opposite viewpoint.
Barend, I never knew the Dutch were “Low German”. But take heart, just look at us English what a hell of a mixture...The Celts (not a big percentage as they were packed off to Wales, to sing, dig for coal and play Rugby.) The Scots who have mostly played the game we invented, and consistently beaten us at it and then pack off every New Year back to eat haggis.
As for the Anglo Saxons they could never agree who was Anglo and who was Saxon; add in the duo decimal Vikings (God defend us from the Northmen” a phrase only removed from the English Book of Common Prayer in the 19th century). Then three centuries of the Norman French (Fortunately they only brought with them seven varieties of cheese .they left the remaining 316 behind in France!!
No wonder self determination vanished from Britain!


ONZF said...

Maori decided on their self determination when over 500 chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi as "tangata Maori" in 1840.

Rev Henry Williams and his son Edward must have known the people occupying New Zealand were not tangata whenua, therefore used the term tangata Maori which was accepted and acknowledged when the treaty was signed by all the party's to it.

Anonymous said...

How can Maori claim to be "indigenous" when they are all descended from people who, in their canoes, found the islands of New Zealand pretty much by accident?
Auntie Podes.

Ray S said...

I have often considered why maori generally dont appear to benefit from the massive apology payments made to appease Waitangi Treaty claimants. I follow on with why dont they benefit as they should. Obviously any progression made by the maori money people can lead ultimately to self determination.

Self determination leads to total separatism and two nations within the same country.
As ridiculous as it sounds, maori would have this arrangement provided that Treaty issues are extant and support from the "other" nation continues as now.

With regard to maori money people sharing benefits, it is not in their interests to do so, maori culture is very hierarchical so keeping the lower levels where they are suits their system.

Anonymous said...


New Zealanders who care about their country are tired of being hectored about “racism” by indigenous pretenders like Lizzie Marvelly simply for believing that our government should govern for all New Zealanders, rather than being a font of special privilege for a favoured few.

Racism is often conflated by the ignorant with simple prejudice, which it is not. Principled opposition to unearned racial privilege is not racism. Nor is it typically evidence of prejudice. Racism occurs where a group of prejudiced individuals get together to create a system affording them separate, different, or superior rights to everyone else on the basis of group membership.

The elephant in the room is that even if the Treaty of Waitangi provides for racial privilege (it does not), the “Maori” of today are not the Maori of 1840, but New Zealanders of mixed European-Maori descent who have chosen to identify monoculturally as Maori, elevating one set of ancestors and trampling down another. Yet traditional Maori culture says that one is to honour all ancestors equally.

The reality is that we have a Maori race in name only, with racial mixing giving the lie to the existence of a unique race called Maori. Imported bloodlines have diluted the original Maori race to such an extent that it now exists only as a cultural concept. Denying one's mixed ancestry and adopting a monocultural identity doesn't make it go away.

For many decades, there has been no discrete or separate Maori ethnic group. All so-called Maori alive today have European ancestry. Indeed, it would be virtually impossible to find a “Maori” who doesn’t possess more of the blood of the colonisers than that of the colonised.

To illustrate this point, prior to the passage of the Electoral Amendment Act 1975, the legal definition of “Maori” for electoral purposes was “a person of the Maori race of New Zealand or a half-caste descendent thereof.” After panicked complaints from its Maori MPs that soon nobody would be eligible for the Maori Roll, the then-Labour Government changed this to read “or any descendent of such a person.”

Under current electoral law, New Zealanders with Maori ancestry can determine once every electoral cycle if they wish to be on the Maori Roll or the General Roll. We thus have a legal definition of “Maori” that defies definition in the Courts, since it is entirely based on an individual’s periodic decision to identify as “Maori.”

Writing in 1972, historian Joan Metge offers a compelling explanation as to why a subset of New Zealanders today might continue see themselves as “Maori.” She states: "New Zealanders, both Maori and Pakeha, tend to identify others as 'Maori' if they 'look Maori,’ that is if they have brown skin and Polynesian features. Those whose Maori ancestry is not so evident in their appearance are left to make their own choice."

Since the Maori phenotype tends to predominate in a person’s appearance, Many New Zealanders who are considerably less than half-Maori will be identified by others as Maori whether they like it or not. This psychic wound is often compensated for by aggressively embracing a collectivist Maori identity and seeking utu upon the majority culture these people feel shut out of.