Secession is one of the legal manifestations of therelationship between states and their sub-national identities, and should beregarded as the ‘ultimate assertion of sovereignty of national groups over theterritory which they inhabit’.1 From theperspective of international law, self-determination is the total freedom ofpeoples to choose their own political, social and economic regime. It combinesthe elements of nationalism and democracy: people can invoke the right toself-determination either to create a new state through secession, oralternatively, to achieve other objectives, such as building autonomous unitswithin the existing state.

International law has failed to provide a coherentframework to respond to the tensions cause by self-determination claims. Theterm ‘peoples’ and its ambiguity protects states from the use of the principlefor the purpose of secession.Self-determination was recognised as a principle ofinternational law at the beginning of the 20th century, after theFirst World War, by Article 1 of the UN Charter, which calls for ‘friendlyrelations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights andself-determination of peoples’.1According to Leni’s policy of self-determination –which was the foundation ofthe internal dynamics of Soviet Russia- the socialist cause had priority overthe principle of self-determination that he strategically promoted only in thecontext of ‘class struggle’. Hence to him self-determination was a tool for thepurpose of socialisation. By contrast, US President Wilson viewed the conceptof self-determination as a corollary of popular sovereignty.

He popularised theconcept by granting the statehood to nations, and understood it as a faircriterion to determine territorial changes. His application of the principlewas confined to the division of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.Furthermore, he recommended using the principle in settling colonial disputes,but considered that self-determination should be reconciled with the interestsof the colonial powers.