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The Charter of the United Nations - A Commentary, Volume I (2012-11-22)


Stefan Oeter

From: The Charter of the United Nations: A Commentary, Volume I (3rd Edition)

Edited By: Bruno Simma, Daniel-Erasmus Khan, Georg Nolte, Andreas Paulus, Nikolai Wessendorf, (Assistant Editor)

UN Charter — Self-determination — International Court of Justice (ICJ) — Unification

(p. 313) Self-Determination

Prof. Dr. Stefan Oeter

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Main Text

A.  The Right of Self-Determination as a Concept of the UN Charter

The right of self-determination is mentioned in the UN Charter in Art. 1 (2). The Charter in its first mention refers to self-determination as a ‘purpose’ of the United Nations, giving the political principle that had been so disputed since the nineteenth century a clearly programmatic character for the new Organization.1 With this reference, guaranteeing self-determination of all nations became a central political purpose of the UN, inextricably linked with the purpose of achieving friendly relations among nations. Such friendly relations should be based—according to the Charter—on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples. Such wording indicates that the drafters considered self-determination to be a fundamental principle of international law.2 It remains doubtful whether the formula in Art. 1 (2) of the UN Charter originally intended to codify self-determination as a legal right upon which an individual claim of a specific ‘people’ may be based—most authors initially negated such an interpretation and viewed it (with good reasons) as a not directly applicable principle, a kind of political prescription.3 But with the passage of time such construction increasingly lost its persuasive force. Subsequent development in the UN, in particular the practice of decolonization, transformed the old (political) principle of self-determination into a collective right—a trend which became more or less irrebuttable with the codification of the right of self-determination in the two UN Human Rights Covenants of 1966.4 In hindsight it is clear that self-determination, as it was referred to in Art. 1 (2) of the Charter, constitutes an elementary structuring principle of the legal world order created by the UN Charter, a normative programme (p. 316) oscillating between the basic purpose of the Organization and fundamental legal principle.5 In most writings on ‘ius cogens’ it is even mentioned as one of the few norms of international law of a peremptory character.6 Article 2 (4) of the Charter corroborates such a reading when it prohibits any use of force ‘inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations Charter’. Accordingly, it is beyond doubt that self-determination, as a purpose and principle of the UN Charter, constitutes a legally binding norm for all member States of the United Nations, as has been confirmed by a series of resolutions of the GA and SC, but also the jurisprudence of the ICJ, and State practice in the process of decolonization as well as in the cases of creation of new States in Europe after 1990.7 Although