Often people refer to the right to national self-determination as if it were an undeniable fact. For example we hear about the rights to national self- determination of Quebec, Catalonia, Chechnya, and Kurdistan. This right suggests that all nations should be able to control their own affairs, whether this is through the formation of an independent nation state, or providing the nation with greater control over their own affairs within an existing state. Furthermore, while this concept has become common parlance, especially in international politics, it seems that no such right is justifiable because respect for nations is derivative of respect for persons, and respect for persons does not require that each `nation` control its own affairs. Although, there are cases where human security and safety demand that a nation be given the ability to control its affairs.
It seems that respect for nations is derivative of respect for persons. For example, a state disrespects a nation if it tries to eliminate the nation`s culture and traditions, provided these traditions are not cruel or barbaric. But the reason that trying to eliminate a nation`s culture and traditions is disrespectful of the nation is because the persons who make up that nation are attached to their culture and their good is partially constituted by being able to participate in these practises. By trying to break up that culture and eliminate its practise we suggest that the good of the members of the nation are not important and do not need to be taken into account. Thus, it seems that respect for nations is derivative of respect for persons as disrespecting nations seem to be problematic because it involves disrespecting persons. For the remainder of this entry I will refer to this way of conceiving of a principle of respect for nations as a derivative principle of respect for nations.
Some might say nations are ethical entities that are entitled to respect and this is distinct from the respect we might show the persons who make up the nation, but any reason we seem to be able to think of for respecting a nation seems to deal with the dignity and well-being of persons. It is hard to know what is meant when people suggest that we respect the nation, as opposed to respecting the persons who make up that nation. There does not seem to be an ethically salient property of nations that merits additional respect over and above the respect we show for nations. For the rest of this entry I will refer to this conceptualization of the principle of respect for nations as a non-derivative principle of respect for nations.
One path that is available to a defender of a non-derivative principle of respect for nations would lie in considering respect for nations as a relational good, such that the good is not of some mysterious emergent property of the nation, but rather lies in a good that all members of the nation share. But, when we translate respect for nations into a relational good this means that we are taking the interests or goods of persons into account. We are just considering that individual`s good as in part constituted by a good that is shared. So, while the framing of the relational good approach is distinct from a derivative principle of respect for nations, both positions are considering the goods of individual persons as what fundamentally matters. Consequently, it seems that respect for nations derives from respect for persons.
Now, if the right to national self-determination must be derived from the goods of persons, whether taken in isolation, or as equals sharing in a good, then it seems that this right is not justified. This is so because in principle there is no reason to think that the good of persons is threatened if the nation that they are a part of does not control its own affairs. The fact that I am a member of Nation X living in a state with a majority population of Nation Y does not mean that my good, or my good as member of a nation, is threatened. Therefore, there does not seem to be a reason to think that in principle all nations ought to control their own affairs, as this is not necessary for protection of the goods of persons, and respect for those persons.
That said, there are many situations in which nations ought to be able to control their own affairs. If a minority nation exists within a state in which the majority nation is hostile towards the minority nation, then that minority nation surely needs their own state, as the minority nation`s members will be vulnerable to threats from a hostile majority. Similarly, if two nations existing under the same state cannot seem to peacefully co-exist then there is strong reason for each nation to have its own state to ensure the security of all. But these sorts of cases do not show a general right to self-determination, but merely that under certain circumstances it is in the interests of human security for a nation to control its own affairs. These cases should not be used ground a general right of national self-determination, but should be recognized as the exceptions that they are.