The concept of “The right of peoples and nations to self-determination” is one of the most quoted concepts in international politics. It originates from the United States Declaration of Independence (1776) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1793). These documents lay down the right of citizens to choose their own leaders and form of government.
In the 20th century, the ‘Right of peoples to self-determination’ was acclaimed by statesmen so diverse as US President Woodrow Wilson and the Russian head of state, Wladimir Lenin. Wilson saw this concept as the key to a more peaceful world, whereas Lenin had the idea that he could use it as a central element in his struggle against reactionary empires. The principle was widely applied when Europe was redesigned at the peace negotiations in Versailles after World War I.
After World War II, decolonialisation moved ahead under the banner of ‘the right of self-determination’. In the last forty years, large numbers of dissatisfied regions and national minorities have called upon this principle – the Basques, for example, and the Tamils in the north of Sri Lanka.
So when the cry of nations for the right of self-determination is heard throughout the globe, from East Timor to Kurdistan, one might surmise that theirs is a reasonable demand, but matters are not as simple as they seem!
In 1920, if a plebiscite had been held in the whole of the old Duchy of Schleswig, from the River Kongeå to the River Ejder, there would have been a German majority. The size of the area in which the plebiscite is held is a decisive factor.