General Recommendation XXI(48)
adopted at 1147th meeting on 8 March 1996
1. The Committee notes that ethnic or religious groups or minorities frequently refer to the right of self-determination as a basis for an alleged right to secession. In this connection the Committee wishes to express the following views:
2. The right to self-determination of peoples is a fundamental principle of international law. It is enshrined in article 1 of the Charter of the United Nations, in article 1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as in other international human rights instruments. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides for the rights of peoples to self-determination besides the right of ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion or to use their own language.
3. The Committee emphasizes that in accordance with the Declaration of the United Nations General Assembly 2625 (XXV) of 24 October 1970 on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations it is the duty of States to promote the right to Self-determination of peoples. But the implementation of the principle of self-determination requires every State to promote, through joint and seperate action, universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations. In this context the Committee draws the attention of governments to the General Assembly Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious, and Linguistic Minorities.
4. In respect of the self-determination of peoples two aspects have to be distinguished. The right to self-determination of peoples has an internal aspect, i.e. the rights of all peoples to pursue freely their economic, social and cultural development without outside interference. In that respect there exists a link with the right of every citizen to take part in the conduct of public affairs at any level as referred to in article 5 (c) of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. In consequence, governments are to represent the whole population without distinction as to race, colour, decent, national, or ethnic origins. The external aspect of self-determination implies that all peoples have the right to determine freely their political status and their place in the international community based upon the principle of equal rights and exemplified by the liberation of peoples from colonialism and by the prohibition to subject peoples to alien subjugation, domination, and exploitation.
5. In order to respect fully the rights of all peoples within a state, governments are again called upon to adhere to and implement fully the international human rights instruments and in particular the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Concern for the protection of individual rights without discrimination on racial, ethnic, tribal, religious, or other grounds must guide the policies of governments. In accordance with article 2 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and other relevent international documents, governments should be sensitive towards the rights of persons of ethnic groups, particularly their right to lead lives of dignity, to preserve their culture, to share equitably in the fruits of national growth, and to play their part in the government of the country of which its members are citizens. Also, governments should consider, within their respective constitutional frameworks, vesting persons of ethnic or linguistic groups comprised of their citizens, where appropriate, with the right to engage in such activities which are particularly relevent to the preservation of the identity of such persons or groups.
6. The Committee emphasizes that, in accordance with the Declaration of the General Assembly on Friendly Relations, none of Committee's actions shall be construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent states conducting themselves in compliance with the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples and possessing a government representing the whole people belonging to the territory without distinction as to race, creed or colour. In view of the Committee international law has not recognized a general right of peoples to unilaterally declare secession from a state. In this respect, the Committee follows the views expressed in the Agenda for Peace (paras. 17 et seq.), namely that a fragmentation of States may be detrimental to the protection of human rights as well as to the preservation of peace and security. This does not, however, exclude the possibility of arrangements reached by free agreements of all parties concerned.