Review: “Self-Determination of Peoples: A Legal Reappraisal” – Antonio Cassese

Antonio Cassese’s “Self-Determination of Peoples: A Legal Reappraisal” is an excellent legal analysis of the evolution and application of the right of peoples to self-determination in international law.

The first chapter examines the origins of the right of peoples to self-determination in the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and especially in the French Revolution (1789). The book begins with a historical background of the right of peoples to self-determination, starting with the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and the French Revolution (1789). The right of peoples to self-determination was first enshrined in Article 2 of the Title XIII of the Draft Constitution (1793), which prohibited territory transfers between states without the “freely expressed wish of the majority of inhabitants”. Although a lofty principle, Cassese describes how the French misapplied it in practice, using fraudulent plebiscites to justify territorial annexations.

The end of WWI brought the right of peoples to self-determination to international attention. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, albeit for entirely different reasons, declared their recognition of the right of peoples to self-determination. However, despite being recognized at the international level, there was very little legal development of this right. For the Soviet Union, international promotion of the Leninist conception of self-determination fell to the wayside as the newly established socialist state struggled with Civil War and the invasion of its territory by 14 countries. For the U.S. and other Western countries, the right of peoples to self-determination conflicted with these states’ colonial and imperialist ambitions, thus the right to self-determination was quashed. A notable exception to this was the Aland Islands dispute between Sweden and Finland. The case was submitted to the League of Nations, which ruled in Finland’s favour, with important consequences for international law, that I think is too often ignored by legal scholars, such as Kruger.

In Part II, the author examines the evolution of the right of peoples to self-determination in customary and treaty law, i.e., as an international legal standard. The 1966 International Covenants on Human Rights are examined in detail from the perspective of self-determination, including self-determination as a continuing right, self-determination over wealth and resources, self-determination of colonial and dependent peoples, etc.. The author also examines the two different kinds of self-determination: external and internal. On external self-determination, the author examines international legal standards regarding self-determination and territorial integrity, and instances in which the UN has set aside one or the other standard; the self-determination of peoples subjected to foreign domination or occupation; and economic self-determination. On internal self-determination, the author examines the right to self-determination to the for the populations of sovereign states and racial/minority groups; the modes of exercising internal self-determination; etc.

By far the most interesting part of this book, in Part III, the author examines the impact of the right of peoples to self-determination on traditional international law, especially state responsibility, territorial integrity, the prohibition on the use of force, etc. The author then ‘tests’ the right of peoples to self-determination and its impact on international law by examining some of the most controversial disputes at the time of publication: Gibraltar, Western Sahara, Eritrea, East Timor, and Palestine. He also examines the role of self-determination in the breakup of the Yugoslavia and the USSR. Interestingly, according to the author, none of the former republics of the USSR achieved independence legally under international law, another inconvenient fact so often ignored by legal scholars.

The rest of the book is an examination of attempts at expanding the right of peoples to self-determination and the author’s own observations and recommendations.

An excellent book on an important subject.

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