Is There a Right of Self Determination?
I got into an interesting exchange recently online1 that started with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, went from that to whether after WWI the Palestinians should have been allowed to set up their own government and use it to prevent Jewish immigration, and from that to whether the inhabitants of a region have a right to have their own government. One issue that raises is what counts as a region, hence what limits there are to the right of secession. The more interesting question, at least for me, is whether there is a “right of self determination” at all.
It is widely believed that there is. I share the underlying moral intuition that people should be free to run their own lives but getting from that to the right of a group to “rule itself” seems to me to confuse a group with an individual. The right of the inhabitants of a territory to set up their own government means the right of some of the inhabitants to set up a government that will rule over all the inhabitants, including the ones that don’t want it. Before independence the inhabitants of the territory were already being ruled — but how free they were before and after independence depends on to what degree their rulers respected their rights not whether they were ruled by people who lived near them or far away.
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In the modern context it is usually assumed that the newly independent government will be a democracy, claimed that that means the people are ruling themselves. Again, that is treating a group as if it was a person. The individual in a democracy, like the individual in a dictatorship, is subject to rules made by other people without his consent. There may be pragmatic arguments in favor of democracy, if only as a way of letting the stronger faction get its way without having to first win a civil war, but I cannot see any moral argument, any reason why having the support of 51% of a group gives you a right to make decisions for the other 49%. And even if one does believe in democracy, in practice the right of self-determination is usually treated as independent of the nature of the government that results. When newly independent countries in the post-war period turned into dictatorships — “one man one vote once” — they remained independent. Their previous ruler didn’t take them back.
The view that a group counts as a person has unattractive consequences in other contexts, such as the implication that one member of a group, in the Middle-Eastern context one Arab or Jew, can be held guilty of crimes committed by other Arabs or Jews even if he did not commit them. The group is guilty and he is part of the group. At some level that is the mistaken moral intuition held by both the Hamas raiders who slaughtered Israeli civilians two weeks ago and the people, in Israel and elsewhere, whose emotional response to the raid was that the inhabitants of Gaza were guilty of murder and deserved to be punished for it.
The Consequentialist Claim
In addition to being intuitive, the principle of self determination (both in its general and particular forms) seems to be widely appealing, being a well-established and widely-cited principle. It also seems to generally produce good results, and there is reason to think it should produce good results. 2
The first half of that is an argument by authority, true but irrelevant; the second is a widely believed claim. So far as I can tell there is little evidence for it.
North America provides a test case. The U.S. became independent in the 18th century, Canada did not. On the whole I prefer the U.S., but the two countries seem about equally well off, with differences explainable by climate and geography. A Canadian acquaintance told me, some fifty years ago, that socially speaking Canada was about two decades behind the U.S. and a good thing too, but I don’t think that is still the case. The most notable difference in the history of the two countries is that the U.S. had a bloody civil war less than a century after it became independent; Canada, at the time still ruled by the UK, did not.
Decolonization after the Second World War provides multiple opportunities to compare the newly independent countries to their previous history as colonies. In the decades after becoming independent Nigeria and Rwanda had civil wars each of which killed about a million people. The Sudan had a series of civil wars that killed a total of two to four million people and is currently engaged in another. At least six other African countries had internal conflicts after independence each of which killed between 100,000 and 500,000 people.3 Comparing events after independence with events before, the only case I could find with comparable death rates was the Belgian Congo under Leopold, who lost control in 1908.
What about other examples of post-war decolonization? The biggest, Indian independence in 1948, was followed by a Hindu/Muslim conflict estimated to have resulted in 200,000-2 million deaths, 10 to 20 million people displaced, a conflict that is still going on. The next biggest was Indonesia; the anti-communist purge under General Suharto in 1965 killed between 500,000 and a million.4
Arguably we should count in favor of the principle of national self-determination the cost of wars to keep colonies from becoming independent since the wars would not have occurred if the ruling power had accepted the principle. The largest death toll I could find for an African example was for the Algerian war, which killed almost two hundred thousand people. Going outside of Africa, the Indonesian war of independence (from the Dutch) killed about a hundred thousand.5 That is a lot of deaths but considerably less than the three largest figures for post-independence African wars.
Judged by death rates it looks, on the basis of the limited evidence — readers are invited to provide more — as though national self-determination has had negative consequences.
That is not the only relevant measure, just the one easiest to find. Another would be economic growth. The one relevant comparison I found was for India. From 1850 to 1947 the average rate of economic growth was .55%, for the first three decades after independence 1%, higher in later decades, which looks like evidence of a benefit from decolonization. But World economic growth from 1850 to 1947 was about 1.6%, from 1947 to 1977 about 4.6%, so independence may not have been what made the difference. Another measure would be individual rights under independent vs foreign rule. I do not know where one would find a broad comparison, but South Africa became fully independent of Britain in 1931 and instituted Apartheid in 1948.
The consequentialist argument might still be true — we don't have alternate worlds in which to observe what would have happened in a world without widespread belief in the principle of national self-determination. But it is not obviously true unless you are willing to ignore total deaths on roughly the scale of the holocaust that occurred in internal conflicts in the states resulting from decolonization.
As many do.
On The Other Hand
I have been implicitly attributing decolonization to widespread acceptance of the principle of national self-determination but perhaps it would have happened without that. Suppose we replace Orwell’s explanation of colonization, that it happened because it was in the interest of the colonizing country, with Kipling’s view as interpreted by Orwell, the view Kipling expresses in “The White Man’s Burden,”6 colonization as a benevolent effort to spread the benefits of civilization:
Take up the White Man's burden - Send forth the best ye breed - Go bind your sons to exile To serve your captives' need; To wait in heavy harness On fluttered folk and wild - Your new-caught sullen peoples, Half devil and half child.
On that theory it was colonization, not decolonization, that was driven by ideology. As that ideology gradually faded the colonizing states abandoned the expensive project of civilizing the people they ruled while keeping them from killing each other. The principle of national self-determination was merely a convenient excuse to put down the burden.7
My best guess is that real world imperialism was due to a mix of motives. Leopold’s Congo was pretty clearly an attempt to make money out of ruling people and exploiting them. The British rule over India that Kipling observed may, as he seems to have believed, have benefited the Indian people, possibly at the expense of the British people. Other imperial projects were probably due to a mix of motives, some members of the imperial population benefiting at the expense of those they ruled, some benefiting by doing things that also benefited the ruled, some worse off due to the cost of empire.
From the DSL thread.
Written in 1899 about the United States and the Philippine Islands.
I am told that this is Humphrey’s view of decolonization in “Yes Minister.”