The affirmation of the right of nations and peoples to constitute themselves into sovereign states, to pursue their own chosen paths of political, economic, social and cultural development free of outside interference, has been one of the great advances of the modern world. However, this right is under severe attack today by the US and other imperialist powers, which are brazenly trampling on the independence and sovereignty of countries to further their own strategic interests.
The right to self-determination was first asserted through struggles waged by various peoples who were languishing under the yoke of colonial and imperialist empires. By the early twentieth century, it was in theory recognised by international bodies such as the League of Nations, but in practice the major imperialist powers did not recognise the applicability of this right to numerous colonial and dependent countries of Asia and Africa in particular.
In November 1917, the working class and people of Russia rose up and overthrew the rule of the bourgeoisie and began to chart out their own course of socialist development. Their right to do so was not recognised by the major imperialist countries, who organised a combined military assault on the new state and tried to crush it in its infancy.
In the course of defending their new power and building socialism, the working class and people of Russia forged new bonds with other peoples of the former tsarist empire and with other oppressed peoples and nations. This was reflected in various clauses of the historic 1918 Constitution of the Soviet Union:
- Article 6 of the Constitution declared its support for the complete independence of Finland, for the withdrawal of troops from Persia, and self-determination for Armenia.
- Article 4 denounced secret treaties and, in the midst of the imperialist world war that was raging at the time, upheld the ideal of a democratic peace for the working people of the whole world, without annexations or indemnities, on the basis of the free self-determination of nations.
- Article 8 underscored the principle of self-determination of nations within the Soviet Union by “leaving it to the workers and peasants of each nation to decide independently at their own representative congresses of soviets whether they wish to participate in the federal government and in the other federal Soviet institutions, and on what terms” Later it was spelt out that the right of self-determination of the various republics of the Soviet Union extended up to and included secession, and this was upheld in the 1936 Soviet Constitution as well.
The example of the Soviet Union and its proclamation of the right of nations to self-determination in theory and practice, within its own borders as well as outside, was a powerful inspiration for millions of people in different parts of the globe who were fighting for national and social liberation. The following decades saw a great upsurge in their struggles, many of which were led by communist parties.
With the sacrifices made by the peoples for their freedom during World War II, the heightened prestige of the Soviet Union and the international communist movement by the end of the War, and the weakening of the old imperialist powers, the principle of self-determination of nations received powerful reinforcement at the end of the War, when a number of countries won their freedom and independence. The United Nations that was founded in 1945 enshrined the principle in clear terms:
- Chapter 1, Article 1, part 2 of the United Nations Charter upheld the principle of “friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples”.
- Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) declared: "All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development."
The rise of imperialist superpower rivalry and the attacks on self-determination during the Cold War
Despite the almost universal recognition of the right of peoples to “freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development”, this principle was violated again and again. The main violator was initially the United States, which assumed the mantle of leadership of the imperialist bloc of countries in the post-War period. The main justification to interfere in the affairs of other states was “the fight against communism”. The all-out war against communism, which had been temporarily subdued by the needs of World War II, was revived in full force by the US and its allies right afterwards. Under that cover, countries like Korea and Vietnam were invaded and partitioned, governments were overturned, coups were organised, assassinations were carried out, and puppet regimes installed in countries all over the globe. The US imperialists used their enormous economic and financial clout as well to interfere in the affairs of various countries to advance their own interests. Anger against US imperialism mounted among democratic and freedom-loving peoples all over the globe.
A great tragedy for the peoples and complication in the struggle for self-determination arose through the betrayal of principles by the Soviet Union headed by the Khrushchevites. While restoring capitalist exploitation and national oppression within, the Soviet Union emerged as a full-fledged social-imperialist power, contending and colluding with the US for domination over the globe. The Soviet social-imperialists proclaimed the nefarious theory of “limited sovereignty” to justify their efforts to dominate the countries of people’s democracy in Eastern Europe. In the name of opposing US imperialism, they intervened in the affairs of a number of countries in Europe, Africa and Asia. The invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and of Afghanistan in 1979 showed the extent to which the rulers of the Soviet Union had departed from the principles originally laid down in that country.
Escalated offensive on the independence and sovereignty of states by imperialism in the post-Cold War world
In bringing about the reversal of socialism in the Soviet Union, its rulers completely abandoned the principle of equality and self-determination of nations within the Soviet Union, leading to a build-up of anger and resentment against them on the part of various nations and nationalities within it. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, US imperialism exploited this anger and resentment to bring many of the nations and nationalities of the Soviet Union under its own domination. They cynically used the slogan of “national self-determination”, particularly in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, to push for the creation of several smaller pro-Western imperialist states in this region.
However, in this same period, wherever the US imperialists have encountered opposition to their policies from established states around the world, they have thrown the principle of the sovereignty and self-determination of nations to the winds. They have used every type of excuse to justify intervening in the affairs of those states. The US imperialists used the justification of their own “national interests” to invade and occupy Afghanistan in 2001. They used the excuse that Saddam Hussein was hiding “weapons of mass destruction” to invade and occupy Iraq in 2003. Denying that the right to develop the use of nuclear energy belongs equally to all states, they have been threatening and blackmailing countries like Iran and North Korea. Now in the name of “humanitarian intervention” and “saving lives”, they and their allies have been pounding Libya with bombs and missiles, and they are threatening to do the same with Syria. It is no secret that the choice of which states to attack is determined by nothing other than their opposition to US domination or by their possessing resources like oil and gas which are coveted by the imperialist states and big monopolies.
Today, the argument is being advanced that the cause of human rights or global concerns about environment etc. must take precedence over the well-established international laws and conventions on the sovereignty of states. It is wrong to consider this question outside of the actual geopolitics of the present time, when the US imperialists and their allies are hell-bent on expanding their domination and presence in every corner of the globe. History has shown that fighting the violation of human rights within a country can and must be the task of the people of that country. Those forces within such a country who take the military, financial or logistical help of imperialist powers to fight their own battles – with the excuse that this would bring about a “quicker” victory – are deceiving themselves and their own people, and mortgaging the freedom and sovereignty of their country. As long as imperialism exists, it is important to uphold the principle of the self-determination and sovereignty of all states and peoples, as a matter of principle.