Increasingly, self-determination is used as a rallying cry for separatist movements around the world, from Kosovo to Tibetan independence. Many separatist movements have leveraged symbols of European Imperialism to cast their cause as a fight for freedom.
On the one hand, such use of self-determination seems to be appropriate. The West conquered a large part of the world over the last 500 years, causing wide devastations and detriments to many peoples across the world. Calls for self-determination by former colonies in the aftermath of WWII rightfully became a rallying cry for all dispossessed people in the world.
On the other hand, today’s zeal for self-determination along religious and ethnic lines may also be fanning unnecessary religious and ethnic divisiveness around the world (see, e.g., book excerpt from the “Self Determination of Peoples” and book excerpt from “Modern Law of Self Determination“). From Rwanda to Serbia to the Middle East to Tibet, heightened religious and ethnic consciousness is stoking unprecedented strife and discord.
Recently, we’ve seen how historically stable societies such as Iraq can degenerate into sectarian violence when religious and ethnic divisiveness is actively encouraged. We have also seen with the Taliban in Afghanistan how overzealous ideologies based on ethnic and religious identity can be used as a tool to oppress rather than liberate.
If we must view the world only through religious and ethnic eyes, we will have to start considering all multi-cultural, multi-ethnic countries including the U.S. as inherently imperialistic. We will have to regard the basic American concept of a “melting pot” as a mere façade for carrying out “cultural genocide” rather than a tool for fostering equality.
The problem with today’s brand of self-determination is double fold. First, it focuses too much on feeding off the differences of people. Because even the most homogenous of societies will include minorities and even the most homogenous of societies will develop differences in identities over time, it is in general far more preferable to foster plurality rather than homogeneity.
Second, by presuming national borders to be arbitrary and easily changeable, self-determination has too often been used as a political tool by powerful nations to meddle in the affairs of weaker nations. The UN and the network of NGO’s not withstanding, the fate of peoples across the world is still inexorably tied to the strength of individual nations, as any traveler in the world can attest. The nation state is still the entity best suited for advancing the life qualities of people across the world – and deserves to be promoted and respected, not denigrated.
In summary, while self-determination can be a tool for liberation, it is too often used as a platform for breeding ethnic and religious divisiveness and undermining national sovereignty. We must not uncritically jump to the bandwagon of political movements that opportunistically fly the banner of self-determination. If exercised carelessly, self-determination will actually be a harbinger for further human sufferings rather than human freedoms.