Project description

The concept of the ‘self-determination of peoples’ is a key normative principle of modern politics. It has served as a catchphrase of various national and anti-colonial independence movements, and has been invoked in numerous international peace negotiations and treaties. Yet its broader meaning and implications are notoriously difficult to pin down. The notion of the people is elusive and its relationship to those of the state and the nation undetermined. There is also a tension between the two most common interpretations of the self-determination of peoples. On the one hand, e.g., in the UN Charter, the ‘self-determination of peoples’ is understood as referring primarily to state peoples, thus adding a further layer of legitimacy to the state-centric international order. On the other hand, as also stated in Human Rights Covenants of 1966, non-state peoples, too, are widely acknowledged to have a right to freely determine their political status, which potentially challenges state sovereignty. In the 2007 UN General Assembly resolution, the principle of self-determination has been further extended to indigenous peoples, and many activists and philosophers have affirmed it as those peoples’ ‘human right’.

Bringing together researchers with different disciplinary backgrounds (political theory, law, history, philosophy), the project seeks to uncover the historical origins of the current uncertainties that bedevil this idea. Contesting the widespread view that this concept originated during the First World War, the project traces its complex transnational trajectories from the Enlightenment to the end of the Cold War.

The questions asked in the project include the following: How was the term ‘self-determination’ used in relation to ‘autonomy’, ‘self-government’ and ‘(popular) sovereignty’ in the long nineteenth century? When, where and how did it acquire a territorial dimension? Was the ‘self-determination of peoples’ also invoked to oppose the modern territorial state and state-centric international order? What alternative anti-colonial or post-imperial visions of economic, regional or global order were proposed in such theories? In the context of the posited equality of sovereign states, what languages and concepts (incl. historical progress, standard of civilisation, democracy and size) have been used to explain, justify or criticise the inequality of states in international order, and how was this related to the ‘principle of nationality’ and self-determination? What kind of resistance could be found to the redefinition of the ‘self-determination of peoples’ as applying solely to colonial peoples in the WWII period? Was it possible to turn it against Soviet imperialism?   What kind of significance did the cognates of self-determination (e.g., self-management) have in the Soviet bloc? What was their relationship to human rights and decolonisation movements? What was their relationship to debates about the federal constitution of the Soviet Union?

Several international workshops and a conference have been and are going to be organised to explore these themes:

The first workshop (in Estonian) was held in June 2021. It focussed on the usages of the concept of self-determination (enesemääramine) in the Baltic sea region. For the programme of the workshop, see

The second workshop took place in June 16-18, 2022. Its focus was on the transnational history of the concept of self-determination (of the peoples) in the long nineteenth century (until the end of WWI). For the programme of the workshop, see

The third workshop took place in August 28-29, 2023. Its focus was on twentieth-century theories of self-determination. The workshop was organised by Xosé Manoel Núñez Seixas, Eva Piirimäe and Liisi Veski.