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  The idea of self-determination originated with philosophers of the Enlightenment. For the individual the idea implied that a morally autonomous person was one who freely and rationally chose the right course of action, that is, was self-determining. Analogously for a community the idea of self-determination implied that for a people to be genuinely free they must determine their own government and the form of that government—a doctrine enunciated in the American Declaration of Independence and in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. This idea of self-determination dovetails neatly with nationalism, the belief that the national unit, or the national people, and the unit of government should be congruent, and nations should be free to establish such congruence.

Self-determination has therefore been associated with the democratization of the world and the arguments used to undermine illegitimate empires, and consequently has a rightly honoured place in the lexicon of political freedom.

However, there are multiple difficulties with the idea of self-determination, which are the subject matter of many contemporary national and ethnic conflicts. Who are the people who have the right to self-determination? Are they self-defining, or are they the people of the existing unit of government? Who decides who are the people? Those in revolt say they do so themselves, the state says that the definition of the people is its prerogative, as does so-called ‘international law’ (although it does recognize the right of colonies to self-determination). What if the people are not one people, but several peoples? Who then has the right of self-determination: all, the largest or none? How is self-determination to be implemented: through revolution, secessions, partitions, referendums, and/or plebiscites? What is the scope of self-determination? Need it extend to seeking full statehood and sovereignty for one\'s nation? The degree of autonomy pursued by a stateless nation can range from the partial devolution of legal and fiscal responsibilities (as in home rule arrangements) to more complete autonomy (as in federalism), to accepting arrangements for shared sovereignty over a given territory, through to demands for outright independence. These difficulties with the idea of self-determination do not mean that it is worthless, or indeed pernicious as many often suggest, but rather that it must be carefully handled. Perhaps the right to self-determination is like the right to liberty: something which people should be free to exercise providing they do not cause demonstrable harm to the rights of others to enjoy self-determination. BO\'L

See also colonialism; consociationalism; democracy.Further reading B. Barry, ‘Self-Government Revisited’ in , D. Miller and , L. Siedentop (eds.), The Nature of Political Theory; , A. Cobban, National Self-Determination; , D.P. Moynihan, Pandaemonium: Ethnicity in International Politics.



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