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Self-determination is a principle in international law that a people ought to be able to determine their own governmental forms and structure free from outside influence.
This principle was first articulated by Woodrow Wilson in his Fourteen Points; and was important in the Treaty of Versailles for drawing the boundaries of Eastern Europe and affecting decolonization. Many of the concepts embodied in the ideal of self-determination, however, can be found in earlier documents such as the Declaration of Independence of the United States.
The right to self-determination has been used in recent decades by people all over the world. In most cases there is an ethnic or religious minority seeking independence from a majority to escape prejudice or persecution.
The constitution of the Soviet Union acknowledged this right for its sister republics (although not for declared "autonomous" regions), but it was not applied in practice until the perestroika, when it led to the breakup of the Soviet Union
The purpose of the self determination clause was to allow the former colonies that existed before World War II to have a say in their future. However, after decolonization the right to self-determination became understood to apply only to states and not to peoples, and to be circumscribed by the principles of territorial integrity and non-interference in internal affairs . Many of the newly independent former colonies faced secessionist and irredentist movements and therefore there was an international consensus that self-determination did not apply to these movements.
The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights in 1970 committed the idea of the right for self-determination to the body of international protocol. In essence, all people reserve the right to seek self-determination to address a lack of proper representation or oppression from any given government.
There is tension between the concept of self-determination and that of territorial integrity. This conflict has been resolved in practice by defining the notion of "people" entitled to self-determination as persons living in a particular nation-state rather than persons sharing a common culture or language. Hence, self-determination as it is understood in the early 21st century does not generally promote the political aspirations of oppressed ethnic minorities.
Wilson's ideas of self-determination originated in his Southern heritage and sympathies. His favorite movie was The Birth of a Nation, and his Democratic Party beliefs and personal ties were steeped in Southern pride and resentment of Northern power. Hence Southern interpretations of States-Rights directly led to Wilson's ideas of self-determination. Many have criticized both concepts, however, for promoting secession and division over unity. Further, they key question is at what level do populations have the right to self-determination and the formation or preservation of a state, the empowerment of a local majority, and the formation of a local minority. In the United States, southern states' rights to determine their own destiny during the Civil War and Civil Rights era were held to be not absolute, especially since significant minorities there were oppressed. In Europe after World War I, many of the former Empires destroyed in that war were broken up into ethnic states which themselves were amalgamations of peoples containing their own minorities, in Yugoslavia, the former Russian and Austro-Hungarian provinces, and in the Middle East. In Palestine, Jewish immigrants would claim self-determination to justify the creation of the state of Israel in the former lands of the Ottoman Empire, just as people in the West Bank would later claim independence as "Palestine".
Hence, self-determination has been held to be an example of democracy at work, but also as an example of an abstract theory that when implemented has sometimes led to and fed further ethnic, national, and regional civil conflict.
An example of people using self-determination in the modern time is the state of Jammu and Kashmir in India. There the people of the state, through a plebiscite conducted under the supervision of the United Nations, decided to remain with India.
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