Self-determination – characterized by the International Court of Justice as “the need to pay regard to the freely expressed will of peoples” – is unquestionably a self-evident truth based on, and consistent with, basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. It can be understood in terms of four aspects: principle, right, process and outcome.

Principle: The principle of self-determination as applied to a people began to be formalized in 1919 after the League of Nations - precursor to the United Nations - was established. Simply stated, it is the proposition that a people should be able to freely choose its own system of politics and its own form of economic, cultural and social development.

Right: During the years following the United Nations’ founding in 1945, the principle evolved into a right under international law and even jus coigns – a peremptory norm - and was codified in various United Nations declarations and international covenants. The right in particular of the Tibetan people to self-determination has been recognized by the United Nations and other international bodies.

The right to self-determination is essentially a process right rather than a right to a pre-defined outcome. It does not dictate a particular process or a particular outcome. The exercise of the right entails a process of dialogue between the participants on equal terms and an outcome that is consented to by the people.

Process: The self-determination process can take many forms including direct negotiation by representatives of the participants, meditation via a trusted third party, the findings of an agreed-upon independent tribunal, or the ruling of a recognized international court. The process ends with the people's consent to a proposed outcome through a referendum, plebiscite or some other means.

Outcome: The outcome of self-determination could be independence, genuine autonomy, federation, devolution of power (regional self-government), voluntary integration within a state, or some other acceptable political status. It may also involve different resolutions for different areas such as the economic, cultural and social spheres.

The following sections cover these aspects in more detail. In the Tibetan People’s Right we explore the specific right of the Tibetan people and possible paths to Tibetan self-determination. Additional factors in the case of the Tibetan situation are discussed in Other Considerations.

The Principle of Self-Determination

Self-determination, as applied to a nation of people, is the principle that a people has the right to freely choose its own political status and to determine its own form of economic, cultural and social development.

  1. "Essentially, the right to self-determination is the right of a people to determine its own destiny." Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization

The principle of self-determination does not dictate any particular implementation process or political outcome.

A Right Recognized by the United Nations

The right to self-determination is recognized as a right of all peoples in the United Nations International Bill of Human Rights and of indigenous peoples in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by the General Assembly in 2007. See United Nations Treaties and Declarations for more details.

  1. "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, ICESCR treaty

The plain meaning of the term "all peoples" includes peoples under colonial or alien subjugation or domination, those under occupation, indigenous peoples and other communities who satisfy the criteria generally accepted for determining the existence of a people.

The ICESCR multilateral treaty, a component of the International Bill of Human Rights, was ratified by China in 2001. In addition to the right of self-determination, Article 1 of the treaty also recognizes the right of a people to manage and dispose of their own resources and places an obligation on those parties still responsible for administrating non-self governing and trust territories (colonies) to encourage and respect their self-determination.

The right to self-determination of peoples is also recognized in many other international and regional instruments, and by leading international jurists. For more information see Self-Determination in International Law.

Definition of A People

While there is no universally accepted definition of a "people" in international law, international bodies and scholars have developed criteria for identifying the holders of the right to self-determination. A generally accepted description was developed in 1989 by the UNESCO International Meeting of Experts on Further Study of the Concept of the Rights of Peoples. This description identifies a people as a group of individual human beings who enjoy some or all of the following common features:

  1. a common historical tradition

  2. racial or ethnic identity

  3. cultural homogeneity

  4. linguistic unity

  5. religious or ideological affinity

  6. territorial connection

  7. common economic life

The UNESCO description further states that "the group as a whole must have the will to be identified as a people or the consciousness of being a people"  and that the group may have institutions or other means of expressing its common characteristics and will for identity.

Thus, the notion of a “people” combines objective characteristics describing a group's common historical, ethnic, cultural, religious or other background, with the subjective component of a common awareness as a people.

For further discussion on the definition of "peoples" and the question of self-determination versus territorial integrity and constitutional laws, see the Wikipedia entry on self-determination.

Internal and External Dimensions

In international practice, an external and internal right of self-determination is sometimes distinguished. The external right includes the right of secession, while the internal right is concerned with a people's right of self-governance within a sovereign state. Most sovereign states do not recognize the right to self-determination through secession in their constitutions.

The Chinese Communist Party followed the Soviet Union in including the right of secession in its 1931 constitution in order to help persuade ethnic nationalities and Tibet to join. However, in later years the Party eliminated this right in the PRC Constitution and has reaffirmed China as a "single multi-national state and the "national autonomous areas are inalienable parts".

While guarantees of internal autonomy have generally not been well-secured by international law, under at least two circumstances internal autonomy may become an international matter: 1) when it is the consequence of treaty arrangements transferring or surrendering sovereignty or 2) when it arises out of the denial of the right of self-determination, especially those of indigenous people. Both circumstances apply to Tibet, being the subject of the 1951 Sino-Tibetan Agreement and having an indigenous population denied free choice as to their political status.

Possible Processes and Outcomes

The United Nations documents that codify the principle of self-determination do not dictate any particular implementation process or political outcome or specify any enforcement mechanism. The exercise of the right to self-determination could lead to independence, federation, protection, some form of autonomy or even consensual assimilation.

  1. "Exercise of this right [to self-determination] can result in a variety of different outcomes ranging from political independence through to full integration within a state. The preferred outcome of an exercise of the right to self-determination varies greatly among the members of the UNPO. For some, the only acceptable outcome is full political independence. This is particularly true of occupied or colonized nations. For others, the goal is a degree of political, cultural and economic autonomy, sometimes in the form of a federal relationship. For others yet, the right to live on and manage a people's traditional lands free of external interference and incursion is the essential aim of a struggle for self-determination." Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization

  1. "Independence Is Only One Manifestation Of Self-Determination. Self-determination is not synonymous with independence. On the contrary, independence is merely one of an infinite variety of potential outcomes of the exercise of self-determination: The establishment of a sovereign and independent State, the free association with an independent State or the emergence into any other political status freely determined by a people constitute modes of implementing the right of self-determination by that people." The Case Concerning Tibet, Tibet Justice Center

  1. "Self-determination need not mean independence. In many situations, autonomy within a larger nation state offers the best of both worlds, combining the benefits of being part of a large state in terms of defense, foreign relations and economic opportunity, with preservation of local laws, customs and culture from outside interference. Hong Kong is a good example." Paul Harris, Is Tibet entitled to self-determination?

Tibetan Self-Determination