Is There an International Law Right to “Autonomy”?

Is There an International Law Right to “Autonomy”?

I doubt there is any international law relevant to this emerging crisis in Bolivia, where certain regions are seeking “autonomy” (but not independence) from the central government. Still, it is serious enough to spur international action (the OAS is on the case). And perhaps it is a prelude to secession, and autonomy is laying the groundwork. I don’t know enough about this area to say that this typically happens in secession situations.

This divided country faces a constitutional crisis Sunday when its richest and second most-populous province votes whether to declare itself autonomous from President Evo Morales’s national government, a referendum the president has called illegal.

If the referendum passes, as polls show it overwhelmingly will, leaders of Santa Cruz province say they’ll elect a state legislature, organize local police and otherwise set up a government equivalent to that of a U.S. state.

Morales has called the referendum a move to split up this nation of 9.1 million and to thwart his government’s efforts to rewrite Bolivia’s constitution so that its indigenous majority wins more political power. Bolivia has a centralized government, where police, taxation and other government functions are controlled by federal officials.

“This referendum violates the current constitution, because there’s no mechanism to convoke it,” said Leonida Zurita , a close Morales ally and a substitute senator with the president’s Movement to Socialism party. “They want to found a second Bolivian state, and we won’t let the fatherland be divided.”

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Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

The Canadian Supreme Court advisory opinion on Quebec and the Aaland Islands are the cases that come to mind. There was the problem of whether or not the particular area had internal self-determination. Yugoslavia appeared more a breaking up with an attempt at having it be by “consensus” similar to the Soviet Breakup. Those are the immediate situations that come to mind.



P.S. O'Donnell
P.S. O'Donnell

As Allen Buchanan states in his Justice, Legitimacy, and Self-Determination: Moral Foundations for International Law, “Current international law…fails to provide coherent conceptual support for forms of self-determination short of full independence and for a principled way of ascertaining when more limited modes of self-determination are appropriate.” S.J. Anaya and others have explained how this is owing to the fact that the notion of self-determination was historically forged largely in the context of the struggle against colonialism (hence self-determination was indissolubly linked to secession). Nonetheless, and as Ben suggests with regard to the Aaland Islands, “In the field of indigenous peoples’ rights…international law may be coming to recognize that various forms of intrastate autonomy are appropriate, and may even eventually acknowledge that in some cases groups have an international legal right to them.” Buchanan, rightly I think, proposes “uncoupling secession from self-determination” in order to to “pave the way for a more supportive role for international law regarding intrastate autonomy.”

Cf. Anaya’s Indigenous Peoples in International Law (1996), and Paul Keal, European Conquest and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: The Moral Backwardness of International Society (2003).

Chris Borgen

My short answer to Julian’s question is “no.” I blogged about the Bolivian situation and the international law issues here. If you don’t want to jump to the other post, here’s the relevant part: How does this implicate international law, if at all? Grabs at autonomy or attempted secession are, first and foremost, issues that come under domestic law. They are domestic political problems. They become internationalized if there is some new question of international legality, such as a new entitiy seeking recognition as a sovereign state (in which case there are rules for recognition or non-recognition), the establishment of an armed insurgency (in which case there are the laws of armed conflict), a threat to international peace and security, etc. And of course there exists, regardless as to the existence of any secessionist movement, the application of international law as regards to the monitoring and enforcement of human rights norms. Short of that, though, the disposition of this specific issue is an internal Bolivian question. For one thing, it is unclear whether these regions are really seeking to form a new state or simply immunize themselves from Morales’ tax policies (through “autonomy”) but remain within the Bolivian state. Contrast… Read more »