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Self-determination, territorial integrity and the OSCE

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Taking the present debate on Kosovo as a starting point, the author describes the application of the principle of self-determination in the past and in particular in the OSCE area, and its relation to the even more important principle of territorial integrity. While acknowledging the importance of autonomy as a form of self-determination, the author concentrates on its application as a right to secession. As a principle it was given pre-eminence when introduced by the American President Wilson in 1918 and it played an important role at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 – though only in so far as it suited the victors. After the Second World War it became almost exclusively linked to decolonisation and it took some effort to have it accepted as a principle in the Final Act. Its meaning had by then changed, in the CSCE context, to the freedom of a people within a state to determine their own political and economic situation, as a clear refutation of the Brezhnev Doctrine. It certainly did not imply the right to secession. Although the best example of self-determination in Europe has probably been the German unification of 1990, about fifteen years later the principle was also applied in the Balkans and in the Soviet Union to justify the break up of existing states. Once this had happened, however, the principle of territorial integrity took over and the borders of the new states in their turn became inviolable. The dispute over the status of Kosovo is again an example of the inherent tension between the principles of self-determination and territorial integrity.

Affiliations: 1: Retired civil servant of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs


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