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Can Autonomy Fulfil the Right to Self-Determination?

GCSP Geneva Paper 12


Release Date:

October 2009

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The Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) held an international research seminar on 6 October 2009 on the topic: “Can Autonomy Fulfil the Right to Self-determination?”

In an exclusive setting, high-level independent academic experts and practitioners from Europe, the United States, and Asia discussed the concept of autonomy, as opposed to full-fledged independence, as a possible means of fulfilling the right of peoples to self-determination, as enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.

Autonomy is generally defined as the “free choice of one’s own acts or states without external compulsion” and the "determination by the people of a territorial unit of their own future political status.” It is usually considered as a synonym for self-government, and has been implemented in a variety of historical or current cases, with or without the perspective of independence in the long term. However, with the end of decolonisation, the methods of devolution of power that were prevalent during that period may now seem obsolete.

Today, the principle of self-determination can be given broader application based on inter-relationships between national and cultural identity, democracy, human rights and self-government: “Self-determination does not have to mean irredentism, secession and the violent renegotiation of territorial frontiers.” More importantly, “secession, border revision, federation, regional or functional autonomy, cultural pluralism; there are many possibilities and no reason to think that the choice of one of these in this or that case makes a similar choice necessary in all the other cases.”

Such cases were studied and compared by the participants at this research seminar, in particular with regard to : the method of achieving autonomy (negotiations, referendum, etc.); relations between the local and the central government, especially in terms of power-sharing and distribution of revenues from natural resources; institutional and constitutional guarantees of autonomy; the extent of the protection of human rights, including cultural and minority rights; possible options for the evolution of the status of autonomy. Experts shared experience and knowledge, referring to numerous examples in recent history.

The GCSP acknowledges with thanks the support for this seminar received from the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and other sponsors.Note-taker : Mr Sunjay Chandiramani