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55 Nordic J. Int'l L. 17 (1986)
Is Autonomy a Principle of International Law

handle is hein.journals/nordic55 and id is 25 raw text is: Is Autonomy a Principle of
International Law?
By Professor Douglas Sanders*
In the Camp David Agreement on the middle East, Israel agreed to >>autonomy< for
the Palastinians on the West Bank. In the controversies over the implementation of
the Camp David Agreement, it became clear that the parties had no clear
understanding of what the term >>autonomy<< meant. An earlier speaker in this semi-
nar stated there was no single pattern for autonomy and discusses his examples on
a purely camparative basis. The Report of the Sami Rights Committee commented
on the wide variety of state arrangements for indigenous populations. While the Re-
port suggests that a few common principles have developed as customary internatio-
nal law, in general the framework accepted by the Committee is particularistic or
comparative. The Report supports a right to >>cultural autonomyo on the basis of
Article 27 of the international Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but concludes
that >)political autonomy<( has no basis in international law.
In contrast Madame Erica Daes, the chairwoman of the United Nations Working
Group on indigenous populations, has stated that, in her view, the international law
principle of the self-determination of peoples applies to indigenous populations, but
without any right of secession. The Report of the Special Rapporteur, Mr. Martiney
Cobo, on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations also concludes that the
principle applies, stating it does not >>necessarily< include the right of separation.
There is a general agreement among international law scholars that the principle of
self-determination does not apply to >>minorities<<, with the result that proponents of
autonomy for indigenous populations or other groups must assert that they should
be classified as >>peopleso and not simply as minorities. But it must be understood
that the international law on the rights of minorities is not static or fixed at the mo-
ment. Perhaps minorities, or at least territorial minorities, have rights of autonomy
within the existing structures of states.
Is autonomy a principle of international law? There are three possible arguments
for such a principle. The first would be that autonomy for specific populations is a
principle of customary international law, based on an assertion of a common practi-
ce of leading states. The second argument would assert autonomy as a distinctive
right of minorities. The third argument is based on the principle of the self-
determination of peoples.
Let me deal with the customary international law arguments first. The positions
of Professor Brains and the Sami Rights Committee Report take what I have called
a >>particularisto< approach. They say that the examples of autonomy vary. No com-
mon pattern exist. No general principles can be discerned. To place this approach in
its most unfavourable light, the fact that the Azores have their own coins but Portu-
gese bills, and the Faroes have their own bills but Danish coins proves the lack of any
common model or common principles for political autonomy. In order to do justice
to the arguments one must look to current examples of political autonomy. Inevitab-
ly any list will seem to be solid support for particulaism.
1. Federal states: the Swiss cantons are examples of the constituent units of a federal
state representing cultural and linguistic groupings. The same is true for Quebec
and Canada. As well, the state boundaries in India were reorganized to reflect cul-
tural and linquistic divisions.
* Professor of Law, University of British Columbia.

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