United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (United Nations General Assembly [UNGA]), 14th December 1960 (UN Doc A/RES/1514(XV)), OXIO 5
United Nations General Assembly [UNGA]; League of Nations (historical) [LoN]
- Colonization / Decolonization — Self-determination — States, independence — Territory, non-self-governing — Trust territory and mandate
1. The status of the principle of self-determination
2. Those who are entitled to self-determination
3. The content of the principle of self-determination
This headnote pertains to: United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, an act of an international organization. Jump to full text
United Nations (UN) General Assembly (GA) Resolution 1514 (XV) Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (‘Resolution’), is a landmark document with regards to the right to self-determination. The Resolution aimed to set guiding principles for the application of self-determination in trust and non-self-governing territories. Although non-binding in character, the Resolution marked an important development of international law by elaborating on the content of the principle of self-determination as enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations (1945) (‘Charter’). Over time, the standards incorporated in the Resolution have become part of customary international law.
Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations (1919) established, for the first time, a system for the supervision of foreign administered territories. However, its remit only extended to colonies which were transferred from the defeated powers to the victors at the end of the First World War. By contrast, Chapter XI of the Charter covered all other colonial territories under the name of non-self-governing territories. Moreover, the trusteeship system established by Chapters XII and XIII of the Charter was created to replace the League’s mandate system.
The Charter proclaimed self-determination in Articles 1 (2) and 55 as a guiding principle of the organization to further friendly relations and attain universal peace. This principle was not regulated as a right and therefore did not create direct legal obligations upon Member States. Although due to the vague language of the Charter the content of the principle remained contested, it is still possible to note that in 1945 self-determination did not mean the right of colonial territories to secede from their parent state. This can also be inferred from Chapters XII and XIII of the Charter which established the trusteeship system and thereby enabled the maintenance of the colonial rule.
The content of self-determination evolved gradually. After the adoption of the Charter, the GA hosted several debates on how to eradicate colonialism. In 1952, the GA adopted United Nations General Assembly Resolution 545 (VI) and declared that an article on the right to self-determination should be included in the Human Rights Covenants. In 1960, the Resolution—which stated that all peoples have the right to self-determination—was put to a vote after states had reached a consensus on the content of the principle. While eighty-nine states voted for the adoption of the Resolution and none voted against, nine countries abstained: France, UK, Australia, Belgium, US, Union of South Africa, Dominican Republic, Portugal, and Spain.
The main objective of the Resolution is to declare that all colonial peoples have the right to self-determination, to display the support of Member States for the liberation of dependent peoples and their aspiration to end colonialism.
The Resolution called for an immediate end to colonialism. It stated that ‘[t]he subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and co-operation’. [para 1] It further declared that all peoples have the right to self-determination, that they are free to determine their political status, and to pursue their economic, social, and cultural development. [para 2]
The Resolution denied Member States the right to use force against liberation movements and indicated that dependent peoples are free to peacefully seek independence. [para 4] Although it affirmed the right to independence of colonial peoples, the Resolution clearly stated that liberation movements should respect the principle of territorial integrity and sovereignty of states. [para 6]
The principle of self-determination was enshrined in a non-binding resolution rather than a binding treaty because of the reluctance of colonial states to accept legal obligations regarding their colonies. While socialist and developing states sought to eliminate colonialism as quickly as possible, Western states preferred the gradual formation of the right’s content and were more amenable to accepting legally non-binding political commitments. Therefore, instead of treaty provisions, the right to self-determination was first dealt with in GA resolutions which determined the basic principles. Nevertheless, despite the hesitancy to accept binding obligations, the declarations made by states before the adoption of the Resolution constituted important source of state practice and served to consolidate the formation of customary law on self-determination.
In contrast to the Charter, the Resolution refers to self-determination as a right and not as a principle. Despite this precise designation, GA resolutions are not binding in character and the fact that nine countries abstained from voting meant that self-determination had not attained the status of a right in international law at the time of the Resolution’s adoption. However, the Resolution marked an important step between the 1945 Charter, where self-determination was situated as a goal of the organization, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) (‘ICCPR’) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) (‘ICESCR’) where the common first article unequivocally stated that self-determination was a right.
The Resolution emphasized the importance of the principle of territorial integrity and noted that the disruption of the national and territorial integrity would be contrary to the Charter. This implied that the right accrues to a ‘people’ in the sense of an entire population and not to ‘peoples’ who could be minorities of that population. Hence, the principle of uti possidetis—which requires that decolonized states preserve their existing boundaries after becoming independent unless otherwise agreed—was protected by the Resolution in order to prevent secessionist movements of minorities. The Organization of African Unity, predecessor to the African Union, emphasized the importance of the principle of uti possidetis in Organization of African Unity Resolution 16 (1) (1964) and declared that all members should respect the boundaries of existing states as they were set at the time of independence. In 1970, the same principle was reiterated once again in relation to self-determination in the saving clause of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2625 (XXV)—the Friendly Relations Declaration of the GA. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) referred to the relation of the uti possidetis principle with self-determination in 1986 and stated that the principle’s purpose was ‘to prevent the independence and stability of new States being endangered by fratricidal struggles provoked by the challenging of frontiers following the withdrawal of the administering power’ (Frontier Dispute, Burkina Faso v Mali).
The Resolution was centered upon the independence of colonial entities and did not pronounce on the right to self-government of peoples in terms of popular sovereignty.
Along with treaty law on the matter, including Articles 1 (2) and 55 of the Charter and the common first article of the ICCPR and ICESCR, the Resolution contributed to the formation of customary rules on the right to self-determination. It clarified the obscure content of the principle of self-determination as defined in the Charter by declaring that it applies to all colonial peoples as a fundamental right. The Resolution was followed by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1541 (XV) (1960) and Resolution 2625 (XXV); these form the three basic documents adopted by the GA on self-determination. In relation to the application of these resolutions, the UN supervised several elections and plebiscites and took part in the realization of the right to self-determination in, among many others, Namibia, Eritrea, and East Timor.
The GA adopted United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1654 (XVI) (1961) where it reiterated the principles enshrined in the Resolution and established a Special Committee to oversee the application of the Resolution. Additionally, the Resolution was referred to by the ICJ in the advisory opinion on Legal Consequences for States of the Continued Presence of South Africa in Namibia (South West Africa) notwithstanding Security Council Resolution 276 (1970) (‘Namibia’), where the ICJ stated that the principle of self-determination applies to all peoples. Thereafter, in the 1975 advisory opinion on Western Sahara, the ICJ referred not only to the Resolution but also to Resolution 1541 (XV) and Resolution 2625 (XXV) and declared that the right to self-determination requires the free and genuine expression of peoples regarding the determination of their political status.
The reference by the ICJ in the advisory opinions on Namibia and Western Sahara meant that the resolutions acquired significance beyond their impact to the law of self-determination. The judicial treatment of these resolutions was the first time that the ICJ argued that non-binding UN GA resolutions could contribute to the formation of customary international law.
In contemporary international law, the right to self-determination has acquired a new life outside of the context of decolonization. The Human Rights Committee affirmed in Human Rights Committee General Comment No. 12: The Right to Self-Determination of Peoples (Article 1)—the first article of the ICCPR—that the right of self-determination was especially important for the effective implementation of individual human rights. While the ‘external’ right to self-determination has been extensively applied in colonial territories, the ‘internal’ right to self-determination applies within independent states as a collective right for the genuine implementation of human rights.
Further Analysis and Relevant Materials
International Court of Justice
Legal Consequences for States of the Continued Presence of South Africa in Namibia (South West Africa) notwithstanding Security Council Resolution 276 (1970), Advisory opinion, 21 June 1971,  ICJ Rep 16
Human Rights Committee
Organization of African Unity
United Nations General Assembly
United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2625 (XXV): Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations (24 October 1970) UN Doc A/RES/2625(XXV)
United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1654 (XVI) on the Situation with Regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (27 November 1961) UN Doc A/RES/1654(XVI)
United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1541 (XV) on principles which should guide Members in determining whether or not an obligation exists to transmit the information called for under Article 73e of the Charter (15 December 1960) UN Doc A/RES/1541(XV)
United Nations General Assembly Resolution 545 (VI): Inclusion in the International Covenant or Covenants of an Article relating to the Right of Peoples to Self-Determination (5 February 1952) UN Doc A/RES/545(VI)
Mindful of the determination proclaimed by the peoples of the world in the Charter of the United Nations to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
Conscious of the need for the creation of conditions of stability and well-being and peaceful and friendly relations based on respect for the principles of equal rights and self-determination of all peoples, and of universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion,
Recognizing the passionate yearning for freedom in all dependent peoples and the decisive role of such peoples in the attainment of their independence,
A ware of the increasing conflicts resulting from the denial of or impediments in the way of the freedom of such peoples, which constitute a serious threat to world peace,
Considering the important role of the United Nations in assisting the movement for independence in Trust and Non-Self-Governing Territories,
Recognizing that the peoples of the world ardently desire the end of colonialism in all its manifestations,
Convinced that the continued existence of colonialism prevents the development of international economic co-operation, impedes the social, cultural and economic development of dependent peoples and militates against the United Nations ideal of universal peace,
Affirming that peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligations arising out of international economic co-operation, based upon the principle of mutual benefit, and international law,
Believing that the process of liberation is irresistible and irreversible and that, in order to avoid serious crises, an end must be put to colonialism and all practices of segregation and discrimination associated therewith,
Welcoming the emergence in recent years of a large number of dependent territories into freedom and independence, and recognizing the increasingly powerful trends towards freedom in such territories which have not yet attained independence,
Convinced that all peoples have an inalienable right to complete freedom, the exercise of their sovereignty and the integrity of their national territory,
Solemnly proclaims the necessity of bringing to a speedy and unconditional end colonialism in all its forms and manifestations;
And to this end Declares that:
1. The subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and co-operation.
2. All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
3. Inadequacy of political, economic, social or educational preparedness should never serve as a pretext for delaying independence.
4. All armed action or repressive measures of all kinds directed against dependent peoples shall cease in order to enable them to exercise peacefully and freely their right to complete independence, and the integrity of their national territory shall be respected.
5. Immediate steps shall be taken, in Trust and Non-Self-Governing Territories or all other territories which have not yet attained independence, to transfer all powers to the peoples of those territories, without any conditions or reservations, in accordance with their freely expressed will and desire, without any distinction as to race, creed or colour, in order to enable them to enjoy complete independence and freedom.
6. Any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
7. All States shall observe faithfully and strictly the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the present Declaration on the basis of equality, non-interference in the internal affairs of all States, and respect for the sovereign rights of all peoples and their territorial integrity.