In international law, the right to self-determination is of erga omnes status, that is, it is a right recognised and accepted by the international community as a whole. This international law principle is enshrined in the United Nations Charter (art 1) and restated in the United Nations General Assembly’s Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations. It simply refers to the right of peoples to determine their own political destiny. More broadly, it is the ‘right [of a people] freely to determine, without external interference, their political status and to pursue their economic, social and cultural development, and every State has the duty to respect this right in accordance with the provisions of the [United Nations] Charter’ (GA Res 2625 (XXV) 24 October 1970).
The exercise of the right to self-determination may result in one of the following: the emergence of a sovereign State, the free association of the peoples with an independent State, or integration into an existing State. Whatever the result of the exercise of this right, it has to be determined by a free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples.
Regardless of the fact that this right is an essential principle of international law, political and socio-economic factors may prevent its exercise, and consequently, the realisation of its benefits by ‘peoples’. Such is the situation of the Saharawis of Western Sahara in North-West Africa. The question of Western Sahara came before the International Court of Justice in 1975, the court finding that neither Morocco nor Mauritania had sovereignty over the territory, and that the Saharawis have a right to self-determination (See Western Sahara, Advisory Opinion, I.C.J. Reports 1975, p. 12). Till date, this right is yet to be given effect regardless of the wish of the Saharawis.
To read more about the right to self-determination, political and socio-economic factors that may inhibit its exercise, and the possible consequences of failure to give effect to that right in the context of the Saharawis of Western Sahara, see Global Change, Peace & Security, Special Issue: Western Sahara: The Role of Resources in its Continuing Occupation (Issue 27(3), October 2015).
The journal is published by Routledge in association with La Trobe Law School.
For further info please contact Lola Akin Ojelabi, Editor, Global Change, Peace & Security, La Trobe Law School.