2 July, 2022


Controversy About Self-Determination

By Laksiri Fernando –

Dr Laksiri Fernando

There is much confusion about the concept of ‘self-determination’ or the ‘right to self-determination’ as it became almost a dirty word particularly among the Sinhala majority during the LTTE’s separatist war. It was synonymous with separatism. There is equal apprehension about the usage of the term even after the war, for the same reasons or for reasons surrounding its narrow usage. This is partly understandable because there is no universally agreed definition or interpretation of the concept, except what is stated in various international laws. The concept has always been dynamic and evolving. While the liberal and the Marxist views differed greatly on the subject, the significance also changed depending on the particular historical context i.e. the pre-war, inter-war or under globalization.

International Law

There are several reasons, however, why this concept cannot easily be discarded. As the Charter of the United Nations clearly declared in its Article 1 (2), one of the main purposes of the organization is “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.” Based on the experience of Germany – the German nation and Jewish people – by nation it meant the member nations of the UN and by people, the various communities within those nations. If we translate this concept into Sri Lanka, it means the ‘Sri Lanka nation’ respecting the ‘equal rights and self-determination of the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslim peoples.’

This is only one instance where it is centrally highlighted in the UN Charter. Even if one argues that the above principle applies only to ‘nations’ (= peoples) as collectives and that only means the member nations of the United Nations, this argument is not valid in respect of the two identical articles (Article 1 of both) that appear in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Sri Lanka is an unequivocal party to both of the covenants.

The central principle of this common article is: “All people have the rights of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” There is no dispute that some of the terms used here (i.e. ‘freely-determine’ or ‘political-status’) are subject to interpretation and admittedly the drafters perhaps were not in a position to anticipate all the implications of what they spelled out.

However, there is good reason to believe that as these principles are meant to apply within countries, or more precisely within member nations of the UN, these principles could be achieved only through the arrangements of devolution, autonomy or federalism, apart from ‘freedom to determine their political status’ if they so wish. This is what is called the ‘internal self-determination.’ Otherwise, there is no particular reason why these are enshrined in human rights covenants. The article further says that “The State parties to the present Covenant…shall promote the realization of the right of self-determination, and shall respect that right, in conformity with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations.”

Marxist and Liberal Interpretations

There are other reasons why the concept of self-determination is such important to the debates on minority rights or the rights of minority nationalities. It was to eliminate the oppression by some nations or peoples over the others that both Marxism and liberalism advocated this concept at the advent of the 20th century and many of the followers of these ideologies do so even today. There is no need to say that this concept as a right is the central demand of nationalisms of many of the small or oppressed nations or ethnicities throughout the world and they often mean the formation of separate states as self-determination.

Among the Marxists, of course it was primarily Lenin who conceptualized the ‘right of nations to self-determination’ going beyond Marx and Engels as the early two Marxists did not have much conception about the connection between class oppression and national subjugation, except in the case of Ireland. Both Marx and Engels believed in ‘Great Nations’ and in fact considered some nations as ‘refuse of history.’ They even called the Albanians a ‘goat f…g nation’! In this sense, there was some ‘chauvinism’ in Marx and Engels.

There is no question that Lenin often went into the other extreme and in fact supplied some formulations that have become political slogans of some of the nationalists today. He at times said that self-determination strictly means the right to have a separate state. But other times he was of the opinion that it is a ‘trump card’ like the right to divorce; while you have the right, you always do not invoke or exercise it. It was the latter formulation that post-Leninist (or Stalinist) Soviet Union put into practice and devised various forms of Autonomy that became built into the constitution (1936) as positive products of that effort. Thus the basic foundation of Autonomy concept was or is self-determination.

The liberal approach to self-determination was fundamentally different based on the Kantian principle of individual self-determination in the first place. It was on the basis of individual self-determination and/or self-government based on citizen’s participation that the self-determination of nations or peoples derived. It basically said that no people should be kept under a state or an empire without their consent. As Woodrow Wilson said “people who are self-governing are likely to be governed well, therefore we are in favour of self-determination.”

If the Marxists advocated self-determination as a ‘remedial right,’ the liberals were more inclined to advocate it as a ‘primary right.’ As a primary right, self-determination was associated with liberty, equality, fraternity, emancipation and now a days human rights under the umbrella concept of democracy. Liberals did recognize the need of self-determination as a remedial right at the last resort but argued that if self-determination is applied as a primary right in the first place, then there is no need of it as a remedial right.

Other Contemporary Meanings

Today, self-determination has a deeper meaning going beyond its political significance. It has been developed as a socio-psychological theory – Self Determination Theory or SDT – which applies to individuals as well as groups (i.e. Deci and Ryan). According to this theory, there are innate needs of human beings for autonomy and personal independence. These needs are enhanced when a particular human group (i.e. a minority) is different to those who wield power in society (i.e. a majority). If the needs for autonomy or independence are not satisfied of that particular group through the devises of ‘self-determination,’ that leads to demotivation, passivity, alienation and even rebellion. They most often act collectively rather than individually under the circumstances. This is exactly the situation in Sri Lanka in respect of minorities, particularly the Tamils, throughout years. What are the indications of this deprivation of self-determination of the minority communities?

Just two years after independence in 1949, the hill country Tamils were disenfranchised and made stateless. It took more than four decades to resolve this problem, yet with remaining repercussions. In 1956, the Tamil language was deprived of official status consequently making the minority communities disadvantaged in both educational and employment opportunities. For any ‘mistake or adventure’ that the leaders or the activists indulged in, the whole community was punished through communal violence largely engineered by the state, 1983 being the worst. Self-determination is not an abstract concept. It is about the rights of the people to function their legitimate economic, social, cultural and political activities with equality and dignity.

Self-determination has lot to do with the language use. A young Tamil leader, M. A. Sumanthiran (MP), recently told primarily a Sinhala audience in Matara that ‘last year when children in a Killinochchi school were signing the national anthem in Tamil, the army went and stopped them.’ Since then the government was insisting that the national anthem should be sung only in Sinhala. It was with visible pain that he said that ‘if I were asked to sing the national anthem in Sinhala, I cannot, and therefore I will not sing the national anthem.’ Although Sumanthiran did not make the connection between self-determination and the right of the Tamils to sing the national anthem in Tamil, the connection is so obvious.

Institutional Aspects    

There are institutional aspects to self-determination. The traditional demand of the Tamils has been federalism, although at times or from the beginning, they were also raising the issue of external self-determination as the last resort. There have been no genuine efforts from the state or the majority community politicians at least to meet this demand half way.

Before 1977, it was only through the local government institutions that the minorities could entertain at least limited participation or ‘self-determination’ in independent decision making. But the lack of political patronage from the centre and/or limited funds available to local government thwarted their many efforts. The system was dysfunctional between 1977 and 1987 for various reasons. Although the Provincial Councils were introduced on the Indian insistence in 1987, both the provincial councils and the local governments were not functioning in predominantly minority areas of the North and the East due to war and other reasons. Although the LTTE was running a de facto state in the name of self-determination for some time, it was far from being a genuine self-determination without people’s participation. In the name of self-determination the ordinary people were kept under subjugation.

Even after the end of the war in 2009, still the people in the North are denied of their right to elect their provincial council and various excuses are given for the postponement without any valid basis. The withholding of the elections to the NPC is a gross violation of political rights of the Tamil people in the North, not to speak of self-determination. Namini Wijedasa recently pictured the depressed status of the Tamils, while revealing a story about the “Terrorism Tourism” of the Sinhalese.

“Balavisakan, a 35-year-old teacher from Chunnakam, was seated in the shade with his 4-year-old daughter on his knee. They were both dressed to the nines because they were going to the annual festival of the Vattrapali Amman Kovil in Mullaitivu. …Surrounded as he was by military personnel, the man hardly said anything. ‘Jaffna life goes on as usual,’ he muttered, ‘nothing special.’ They had also stopped at the war monument in Elephant Pass but they would not be taking the whole tour, he revealed, before pointedly looking away.”

Rights of People  

There is no question that if the minority rights were ensured in Sri Lanka by law and in practice then perhaps the issue of self-determination would not arise. But that is not the case. There is a strong discourse on minority rights from the time of the League of Nations (1919). This dialogue was continued through the Sub-Commission on Minorities of the UN Human Rights Commission established in 1946. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) in its Article 27 very clearly proclaimed the minority rights as follows.

“In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.”

What was denied recently for the Tamils in terms of the ICCPR was “to use their own language” for the national anthem. Minority rights are much more elaborated in the UN Minority Rights Declaration (short title) in 1992. Irrespective of all these international norms and principles, the much boasted National Human Rights Action Plan (2011-2016) does not contain a section on minority rights or make any focus on them under the civil and political rights, except highly ambiguous brief comments on language and religion.

Under the classical terminology of Marxism and liberalism, ‘nations’ are the holders of the right to self-determination. There is no question in accepting the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims at least as ‘cultural nations’ within the political nation of Sri Lanka. But under the present international law of the UN, rightful holders of self-determination are all peoples and they have a right to ‘determine their political status.’ Preferably in the case of Sri Lanka, in my opinion, it should be under devolution or some form federalism considering the extremely overlapping nature of self-determination of different peoples in the country.

In 1989, the UNESCO convened an expert meeting to deal with the issue of defining the term ‘people’ and came up with what is called the (Michael) Kirby definition. According to which, a people is defined as a “group of human beings who enjoy some or all of the following common features: (a) a common historical tradition; (b) racial or ethnic identity; (c) cultural homogeneity; (d) linguistic unity; (e) religious or ideological affinity; (f) territorial connection; (g) common economic life.” The UNESCO experts further stated that “the group as a whole must have the will to be identified as a people or the consciousness of being a people.”

*The author, a former Senior Professor in Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Colombo, is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney.

Related posts;

Tamil Self-Determination Or Minority Rights? by Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

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Latest comments

  • 0

    I do hope that Dr Fernando’s opinion is shared by those in power in Sri Lanka.

  • 0

    Tamil language could not have been deprived of official status in 1956 as it was the English language used by only 6% of the people that was replaced by Sinhala used by 75%, as the official language;allowing for provisions for the reasonable use of the Tamil language. It was the English speaking class both Sinhala and Tamil that was unavoidably disadvantaged.

    • 0


      has gone gaga

      ” It was the English speaking class both Sinhala and Tamil that was unavoidably disadvantaged”

      Are we refering to Sri Lanka or some other imagined state?

      • 0

        seems ur the one who in the dreamland of a fabricated history..how was the above statement of Chandra be wrong, was English the mother tongue of tamils during 1956? . how replacing english with sinhala giving enough provisions to tamil be discriminative to tamils?

        • 0


          ” how replacing english with sinhala giving enough provisions to tamil be discriminative to tamils?”

          There was a character in Ramayana. Ravana’s brother Kumbagarna was fond of sleeping, he slept for several years at a time.

          I wonder whether you are related to him. For you have no sense of time or history.

          Thank you for your intervention again to reconfirm stupidity of ignorant Sinhalese.

          You say:

          “giving enough provisions to tamil be discriminative to tamils”

          When was this provisions given to Tamils and how far these provisions have been implemented?

          You know I am bit thick and want you to teach me the history since independence. Will you help me please.

  • 0


  • 0

    Dear Sir,Mr Laksiri Fernando,

    If the rulers of the country is depriving the rights of minority in this country using the military might, How we majority can ask them to joining them to develop as an exemplary nation to the world?.

    And ,WHEN The Psychopath rulers are depriving majority ours rights , Then, what to talk about minorities rights?.

    • 0

      so terrorising a whole nation, suicide bombings, taking a whole population hostage are minority (tamil), rights? i doubt country need such barbarians as a part of the country it self, only solution is to get rid of them!

  • 0

    I am baffled after reading Dayan Jayathilake and Laksiri Fernando because these two academics have diametrically opposing conclusions, as I understand. Oh, God!

  • 0

    what are the boundaries of this self determination. if tamils were given some ghetto for them selves with such exclusive rights, what about the minorities within that ghetto? dont they have the same right to the so called self determination..and where does this going to end…we should stop pandering in to this tamil racist ideas, and should thinking of building a nation which respect each and every one irrespective of differences, and not creating ghettos for each and every racist out there!

  • 0

    Unfortunately some politicians were not smart enough to understand the danger of not addresing the demands that minorities had after the independence. Bad policies and not accepting their first demand of ferderalism were mistakes.

  • 0

    What is this bull dust talk about self determination ? Sri Lanka is one nation one country. All those living in SriLanka are one. Buddhists. Christians,Muslims, Hindus are one people. These Sri Lankan pundits and academics should stop preaching about self determination and talk of all belonging to one country. No more separatist ideas . Those who can’t live as one nation then get on to a boat or a plane and get out. This is one nation everyone should learn to live in peace and harmony and learn all languages spoken and respect all religions. Politicians who talk of self determination should be thrown out lock stock and barrell.

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