A Right to Autonomy?
Self-Determination of Indigenous Peoples within the Human Rights Context

» by Kristina Roepstorff

The main problem with the right of self-determination is its vague and ambiguous articulation in the relevant international legal instruments. As it leaves space for interpretation, the scope and application of the right have been subject to controversies.
Are indigenous groups entitled to the right of self-determination? And if that is the case, what is the appropriate interpretation of such a right? Does it imply a right to secession? Or is only a narrow interpretation favouring autonomy arrangements feasible? And does this correspond with the emergent right to democracy? In order to answer these questions, I first want to outline the evolution of the principle of self-determination in international law from its first appearance as a principle to its articulation as a legal right in the decolonisation era and in international human rights law. This will be followed by a discussion of self-determination in the context of the emerging rights of indigenous peoples.
The right of self-determination is commonly divided into the external and the internal aspect of self-determination. I will therefore discuss this dichotomy and its meaning for the interpretation of the right of self-determination of indigenous peoples. A lot of the confusions and problems in the debate on self-determination can be resolved when not applying the internal/external dichotomy. I will therefore outline an alternative approach towards the conceptualisation of the right of self-determination.
As in the debate on the right of self-determination of indigenous people a right to autonomy has been the favoured interpretation, I will analyse the concept of autonomy and draw attention to the inherent tensions of this concept in the relation to human rights and democracy, as the right to autonomy is often equated with a right to democracy.
I will then outline the different ways autonomy can be implemented and its relevance as a tool for conflict resolution, before discussing it in the particular context of indigenous peoples’ rights. Using the alternative terminology to the internal/external dichotomy, I will analyse the meaning of a right to autonomy for indigenous peoples.
I will argue that there are strong arguments for a right to autonomy under international law. This right must not be equated with a right to democracy, as this does not pay due regard to all the facets of the complex concept of autonomy. I will conclude that although it should be considered as a right of indigenous peoples, it should not be understood as replacing a right of self-determination, as it is only one way of exercising it. Reducing the right of self-determination to a right to autonomy is not in accordance with the idea of self-determination as a human right and neither is the denial of the right of secession in absoluto. I will argue, that an alternative approach towards the conceptualisation of self-determination on the one hand better describes the issues involved and on the other hand meets better the interest both of the states and the indigenous peoples themselves.

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