The Kantian Fingerprint on the United Nations’ Self Determination of Peoples

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

The United Nations (UN) is an intergovernmental organization which seeks to promote diplomatic relations and foster peace and cooperation among its member states. The UN was established after the second World War after seeing the failure of its predecessor, the League of Nations, in preventing the eruption of another destructive global war. At the end of the war, member states congregated in San Francisco to draft the Charter of the United Nations, marking a significant milestone for peacekeeping operations in modern history.

The Charter begins with the words, “We the Peoples of the United Nations.” (Charter, 1941) The organization has the people at the heart of its governing mission which resonates in the six convening bodies it possesses. Among the other central tenets of the organisation as contained in the Charter, the UN devotes itself:

To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace. (Article 1(2) of the United Nations Charter)

The right of self-determination of peoples is considered to be jus cogens (Espielle, 1978), meaning that it reigns supreme in international law.

All human beings are entitled to the natural right to freedom—no external entity, including the state, may impinge upon this. External self-determination is when we look at the bigger picture: “the right of peoples to determine their own political status and to be free of alien domination, including formation of their own independent state.” (Hannum, n.d.) This statute came into force during the revolutionary processes of decolonisation, especially after World War II aided by the rise of nationalism as a blooming ideology. Ex-colonies broke free from the domination from the reigning powers in hopes of acquiring territorial autonomy. Political sovereignty as understood by the principles of the Treaty of Westphalia is inextricably linked to human rights of today, including with minority and indigenous people’s rights. However, this does not imply that a secession is always permissible; each case is contingent upon thorough review.

The world after the Cold War saw many territorial changes after segmentations spurned by political self-determination movements, such as the East Timorese break from Indonesia in 2002, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and de facto independence in Kosovo and South Ossetia. Some examples of states which do not receive international recognition are Kurdistan, Chechnya, and Palestine.

Flags waving for independence day celebrations in Pristina, Kosovo

Where does the idea of self-determination of peoples stem from? One may trace its paths back to the Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant. The German philosopher established much of the foundations of political thought, by focusing on the principles of the moral groundwork and the self.

In his work “Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals,” Kant expounds upon the empirical study of metaphysics which contains the amalgamation of the moral and physical. He develops the concept of a categorical imperative, the foundation of deontological moral ethics, which denotes a universalisation of actions in any given situation, applicable to all. This imperative differs from the principles of a hypothetical imperative, which hooks itself to a precondition (for example, if you do not want to get soaked in the rain, you must prepare an umbrella beforehand). Categorical imperatives prompt us to act a certain way that it becomes a law which all must follow. In other words, we ought to act within an acceptable maxim which becomes the standard rule of law.

The categorical imperative implies that the weight of moral responsibility rests on our shoulders. As we exist as individual parts which make up parts of the concert of humanity at large, Kant lists a series of transcendental duties starting from the inward to the outward such as in the arena of international relations. Human beings are distinguishable with our ability to will, but if we misuse that will to use others as a means to our ends, we are ruling out reason. Kant believes that every human being has a moral worth, a dignity, which commands fair treatment and respect. We are not mere objects that have the sole purpose of being used to fulfil the ends of others, neither are states allowed to establish their place under the sun by taking control of other states.

Kant writes, “The violation of the principle of humanity in other men is more obvious if we take in examples of attacks on the freedom and property of others. For then it is clear that he who transgresses the rights of men intends to use the person of others merely as a means, without considering that as rational beings they ought always to be esteemed also as ends.” (Kant, 142)

We can thereby infer that the impingement of the rights of others cannot be a categorical imperative given that we are rational individuals capable of employing reason to justify our actions. The sole act of depriving others of their freedom of individuality and identity is fundamentally a transgression of the central tenets of morality. To apply this rationale to the self-determination of peoples, if a group of peoples desire autonomy in forming an independent statehood, then it must be granted them by the virtues of categorical imperative. The privation of self-determination is not universal, since the reciprocality of the action is unwanted, if not undesirable.

To boil this down, freedom is our birthright, and the careful utilisation of it determines if we are truly rational agents. In a macro sense, intergovernmental organisations like the UN must attend carefully to matters of liberty concerning non-dominant sectors of society such as oppressed minority groups and indigenous peoples. Kant believes that “this would only harmonise negatively . . . if everyone does not also endeavour, as far as in himself, to forward the ends of others.” (Kant, 142) When we become our own personal moral legislators and set our own laws, we are free.

May ethics and morality thrive in the international court of law.

Works cited

Espiell, Hector Gros. 20 June 1978. “Right of Peoples to Self-Determination — Special Rapporteur Study (Excerpts).” United Nations.

Hannum, Hurst. “Legal Aspects of Self-Determination.” In Encyclopedia Princetoniensis, Princeton University.

Kant, Immanuel. “Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals.” In The History of Western Ethics, edited by Brian Duignan, The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., Jan 15, 2011, 132-142.

“UN Charter (Full Text).” Drafted 14 Aug 1941. United Nations.