Self-Determination vs. Territorial Integrity

By Ara Papian, Modus Vivendi Center, 7 June 2010

On the Principles of Self-Determination and So-Called
"Territorial Integrity" In Public International Law
(The Case of Nagorno-Karabakh)

The notions of “self-determination” and “territorial integrity” are often used with regard to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Unfortunately, these legal terms are largely misused mostly due to political motives. One of the grave misinterpretations of the said notions was made by Ambassador-to-be (or not to be) Matthew Bryza when he declared: “There’s a legal principle of territorial integrity of states, there’s a political principle of self-determination of peoples.”
 


By Ara Papian, Modus Vivendi Center, 7 June 2010

On the Principles of Self-Determination and So-Called
"Territorial Integrity" In Public International Law
(The Case of Nagorno-Karabakh)

The notions of “self-determination” and “territorial integrity” are often used with regard to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Unfortunately, these legal terms are largely misused mostly due to political motives. One of the grave misinterpretations of the said notions was made by Ambassador-to-be (or not to be) Matthew Bryza when he declared: “There’s a legal principle of territorial integrity of states, there’s a political principle of self-determination of peoples.”
 

As a matter of fact, it is just the opposite. There is a legal principle of self-determination and there is no such principle of territorial integrity. Article 2(4) of the UN Charter declares merely: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations”. Thus this has nothing to do with absolute “territorial integrity”, (i.e. preservation of the territory of a state intact) but, according to authoritative interpretation of the United States Foreign Relations Law, it is simply the rule against intervention, a “prohibition of use of force” and purely calls to refrain from “the use of force by one state to conquer another state or overthrow its government.”
In order to have adequate understanding of the status, scope and content of the principles of “self-determination” and so called “territorial integrity” in contemporary international law, we need to elaborate more on the issue.

Self-determination: Historical Background

Self-determination is an ancient political right that is cherished by every people. The word “self-determination” is derived from the German word “selbstbestimmungsrecht” and was frequently used by German radical philosophers in the middle of the nineteenth century. The political origins of the concept of self-determination can be traced back to the American Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776. The American Revolution is considered to be “an outstanding example of the principle of self-determination.” The principle of self-determination was further shaped by the leaders of the French Revolution. During the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, the principle of self-determination was interpreted by nationalist movements as meaning that each nation had the right to constitute an independent State and that only nationally-homogeneous States were legitimate. During World War I, President Wilson championed the principle of self-determination as it became crystallized in Wilson’s Fourteen Points (8 January 1918) and consequently was discussed in the early days of the League on Nations. The Mandate system was to some degree a compromise between outright colonialism and principles of self-determination.

While discussion of the political right and principle of self-determination has a long history, the process of establishing it as a principle of international law is of more recent origin. Since the codification of International Law is today mostly achieved through an international convention drown up in a diplomatic conference or, occasionally, in the UN General Assembly or similar forum on the basis of a draft with commentary prepared by the International Law Commission or some other expert body, we must follow the development of the discussed notions through international instruments. It must be stressed that if the rules, incorporated in the form of articles in the conventions, reflect existing customary international law, they are binding on states regardless of their participation in the conventions.

For the full text in English click here.
and the Armenian version click here.

 

2 comments
  1. Consult History

    Without analyzing the legal aspects and interpretations of these terms there is one fact that Azeris do not dwell upon. It was only 90 years ago that Karabagh was GIVEN to them by the great Georgian murderer. It is not Azeri territory for them to claim anyway… So all those pundits, who talk about territorial integrity, should consult history…
  2. Brilliant
    The informed Ara Papian makes sound arguments. Governments would do well to listen to him.

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