This post is part of a symposium on Joseph Massad’s essay “Against Self-Determination.” All contributions to the symposium can be found here.

I am most grateful for these four serious engagements with my essay. I had already learned much from the scholarship of all four respondents when I wrote my essay, which cites their important work. The essay, which is a short version of a much larger chapter that constitutes one third of my current book project, sought to provide a genealogy of the political deployment of self-determination as an idea, a principle, and a right, since the late nineteenth century; chart out the opposing ideological, political, and racial uses to which it has been put since World War I, and more so since World War II; and distinguish its impact on European colonies and settler colonies before and after 1970. Whereas my essay and the larger book have a global range, the essay highlighted the case of the Palestinians and Israel as illustrative of my conclusion that “what the story of the Palestinians and indigenous people everywhere clarifies is that self-determination is not only not the only route to ‘liberation’ or ‘independence’ from settler-colonialism within the nation form but that it is also the principle, and the legal and rhetorical strategy, that has so far blocked both from ever being realized.”

The purpose of the Palestinian example as illustrative of the larger global impact of self-determination is intended to question the commonplace claim of the so-called sui generis nature of the Palestinian case, a claim that many analysts and not a small number of Palestinian politicians and activists often advance. The article argues that “the case of Palestine and Zionist settler-colonialism has often been noted as exceptional, when, as we will see, it has been, in its major characteristics, anything but that.”

Whereas all four contributors support the major arguments and conclusions of the essay, they offer differing views about periodization, as well as on the assessment of the post-1970 contraction of the right of self-determination. There also seems to be some resistance on the part of Roland Burke and Brad Simpson, and less so on the part of Alexandra Xanthaki, to my major point that the Palestinians are not an exception, although Xanthaki seems to be of two minds about this. J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, in contrast, supports this finding and provides yet more examples of the normativity of the situation of the Palestinians to other colonized peoples in settler-colonies.

Let me attend to the issues of periodization and the assessment of the post-1970 value of the right to self-determination before I turn to the case of the Palestinians as normative, generalizable, and extensible or as exceptional and sui generis.

Burke is vigilant that Asian and African anti-colonial leaders’ approach to self-determination not be undermined by Eurocentric and racist arguments. He has argued persuasively against attempts to define human rights as within the exclusive purview of European societies (in Europe and the European settler-colonies) and demonstrates how central human rights concerns were at Bandung (the hypocrisy of those who push this racist approach lies centrally in ignoring the historical and ongoing egregious violations of human rights by European countries and their colonial settlements locally and internationally).[1] In his commendable vigilance however, he worries that my contention that the espousal of the Leninist model as opposed to Wilson’s at Bandung risks a misunderstanding that Bandung leaders were simply followers. Indeed, I mean nothing of the sort. In my essay I state clearly that:

Lenin’s arguments left a long intellectual legacy in the century to follow. His socialist heirs accepted national solidarity based on land and blood as a “strategic essentialism,” one that is supplemented by class identity and solidarity. It is this progressive legacy of “self-determination” as a right with which to fight colonialism (adopted, for example, by the League Against Imperialism at its first Congress in Brussels in 1927) that persists today among most commentators, who seem oblivious to the later appropriation, transformation, reformulation, and resignification of the term by colonial powers against the colonized.

My reference to Lenin is conceptual rather than necessarily indicating fealty to the person on the part of those who espoused similar ideas. I explain Wilson’s and Lenin’s approaches as providing opposite and contradictory notions of self-determination. Lenin’s and the socialist understanding of self-determination were in line with anti-colonial struggles, hence, the adoption of central aspects of their definition by Asian and African leaders at Bandung and beyond. After all, “self-determination” was itself an imported concept, however most anti-colonial Asian and African movements and leaders chose the expansive meaning of the term (already part of the socialist tradition) rather than the more restrictive imperial one offered by Wilson and restricted by the United States (on the US hostility to its expansive meaning, see Brad Simpson’s essay on the subject).[2] It does not take away from the agency of Third World liberation groups and leaders to affirm that they chose to use an expansive meaning, not unlike that used by Lenin and Luxemburg and the socialist movement, but rather it places them in an intellectual and conceptual chain of thinkers and leaders who opposed European colonialism in a maximalist way.

Burke also contends that my periodizing claim that self-determination was recolonized by the United States at the United Nations in 1970 may not be accurate, as “while radicalism was perhaps drained from national self-determination, it was transposed into revivified projects like the NIEO, and in the nascent project to revise the laws of armed conflict to privilege anti-colonial violence.” This of course is true with regards to these other important projects (to which I attend in my book, especially as regards economic self-determination and independence), but not in relation to “self-determination” as a right and principle of international law and/or convention. In the case of self-determination, as I demonstrate, this is the decisive break with the post-Bandung expansive anti-colonial interpretation of self-determination, which the United States effectively defeated in 1970. Also, the case of NIEO, as Brad Simpson demonstrates in his response to my essay, was hardly a success.

Brad Simpson however has a few similar reservations to Burke’s. He cautions that

The argument that self-determination ‘failed’ or ‘fell’ in the 1970s with the end of decolonization mistakenly assumes that the two are co-equal…Since 1975…self-determination movements and claims have continued to proliferate, and mostly against long-established states, including postcolonial states. The means of adjudicating such disputes through means short of catastrophic violence or civil war (such as autonomy, federation, resource sharing, decentralization, and even secession) have also proliferated, such that self-determination claims pose less threat to the interstate system than at any time in modern history. Massad may rightfully view this as confirmation of his argument. My hunch is that this has more to do with the changing nature of global capitalism and changed understandings of the political and economic viability of small states.

Here, I disagree with Simpson, whom I quote in my essay with regards to the reestablishment of U.S. hegemony at the UN as relates to self-determination. While I do not describe self-determination after 1970 as having fallen or as having failed, I find Simpson’s characterization, that what happened in light of the U.S. recolonization of the right of self-determination was that it “escaped those constraints,” unpersuasive. The third worldist anti-colonial commitments of self-determination were not “constraints” at all, but rather it was the imposition of the U.S. “safety clause” that introduced the constraints as Simpson himself has shown us. In light of the imposition of this imperial-friendly definition and constraint, which harks back to Wilson, I contend that the definition of self-determination became captive of, rather than “escaped,” these U.S.-imposed constraints. Indeed it is these U.S. constraints that, as Simpson states, and which I too argue in my essay, rendered self-determination less of a “threat to the interstate system than at any time in modern history.” On this point, we are in full agreement.

Simpson is correct that we should not equate decolonization and self-determination. Indeed, I begin my article by making this distinction: “It is often claimed that anticolonial nationalism and self-determination have a coeval history, indeed, that self-determination is the principle through which anticolonialists would achieve their declared goal of independence from colonialism. The story goes that not only have anticolonialism and self-determination emerged around the same historical juncture but they are also imbricated in one another, so much that the colonial recognition of one automatically leads to the colonial recognition of the other. Yet, on closer inspection, this seems to be a misleading narrative.”

Alexandra Xanthaki also takes up the issue in line with Simpson. She states that “during the last stages of the elaboration of the Declaration in the United Nations, Indigenous peoples from North America would not accept any text without an unqualified right to self-determination, whereas other indigenous groups were ready to settle without it as long as their wider human rights were protected…There is disappointment among Indigenous peoples in the North that recognition of self-government in the Canadian context maintains the colonial context and the power relations between indigenous peoples and the Canadian state. On the other hand, there is still emphasis on the Indigenous peoples in Latin America, Asia and other parts of the world on the human rights model for indigenous rights.” While Xanthaki cites Patrick Macklem who claims that “the purpose of the current right to self-determination has recently been modified and its new purpose is actually ‘to mitigate adverse effects associated with how international law distributes sovereignty around the globe and how it authorizes its exercise by sovereign States,’” she disagrees with him and adopts the views of Andrew Erueti who offers an “interpretative mixed model.”

Whereas Macklem argues that the new arrangement of shifting self-determination to a human rights model has been detrimental to indigenous peoples, as international human rights law does not “entitle indigenous peoples to acquire sovereign power as of right,”[3] Erueti’s model, in contrast, “advances both the decolonization/sovereignty and the human rights understandings of indigenous self-determination,” which according to Xanthaki, “is a more inclusive and comprehensive basis for indigenous self-determination and addresses concerns on the one hand, of depriving indigenous self-determination from the shield of the current human rights conundrum; and on the other of using the recognition of indigenous self-determination merely to maintain the status quo.”

I find Xanthaki’s position close to Simpson’s on this point. However, I am not as convinced by Erueti’s approach and his critiques of the works of Macklem and Karen Engle.[4] Macklem’s and Engle’s books have shown that the difference discerned between the demands of U.S. and Canadian indigenous groups on the one hand and Latin American indigenous groups on the other can be explained by the repressive nature of the Latin American regimes in the 1970s and 1980s when these demands were made, which impelled the latter to make less radical demands having to do with sovereignty and the restoration of land rights and align their demands with the hegemonic human rights discourse of the period. The human and cultural rights approach that they pursued, expectedly, as Engle writes, “largely displaced or deferred many of the economic and political issues that initially motivated much indigenous advocacy: issues of economic dependency, structural discrimination, and lack of indigenous autonomy.”[5]

Macklem addresses the question of colonial settler states’ entry into treaties with indigenous populations to organize colonial settlement since the nineteenth century, leading international law, by the turn of the twentieth century, to “validate imperial claims of sovereign power over indigenous peoples and territories…” But while this was later repudiated, “its effect was to exclude indigenous peoples from international law’s distribution of sovereignty and include them under imperial sovereign power…The adverse consequences of these projects, which included genocide, forced relocation, and territorial dispossession, are well known…The important point is that this process of exclusion and inclusion was not a one-shot affair, occurring sometime in the distant past when international law accepted the proposition that indigenous territory constituted terra nullius. It is an ongoing process of exclusion and inclusion to the extent that it continues to subsume indigenous population under the sovereign power of States not of their own making.”[6] It strikes me that this fits the Palestinian situation perfectly, even if Palestinians like Black South Africans or Zimbabweans or Algerians, did not suffer genocide but suffered the rest of the effects of colonization.

Engle’s point as well as Macklem’s also addresses the more optimistic viewpoint that Simpson expresses when he affirms that “these movements have wrenched considerable (if still insufficient) sovereignty concessions, not from colonial systems and states in advanced crisis, but from otherwise stable settler colonial states and an international system forced to acknowledge them as legal sovereigns with enforceable rights, an impressive achievement given their virtually non-existent military capacities.” But this is precisely the point, namely that the dilution of the meaning of self-determination in the Leninist sense (to continue with my shorthand) to the Wilsonian one has foreclosed the possibility of the restoration of economic or political sovereignty in return for some consolation prize that, as Macklem and Simpson clarify, does not threaten the entrenched interests and sovereignty of colonial-settler states. What indigenous people got as a result of this is not some kind of benefit that will slowly accumulate to restore to them what was and what continues to be robbed of them, but merely meager resources that do little to ameliorate the overall economic and political conditions to which they have been reduced, and will not in any way chip away at the considerable resources stolen from them and which remain in the hands of white colonial settlers and their descendants. While Xanthaki informs us that “we international scholars on indigenous rights have been satisfied that the current recognition of indigenous self-determination has been fulfilling the current claims of indigenous peoples,” I must add that I am less so.

This takes me to the Palestinian case and whether the situation as regards self-determination and the Palestinians is generalizable or unique to them. Burke states that “Massad’s principle area, that of Palestine, presents a compelling and salient case. Its extensibility seems less persuasive.” Yet, he goes on to show us how it is extensible. “The invented ‘citizens’ of Transkei, Ciskei, and Venda, particularly once they were to be stripped of any connection to the Republic of South Africa, had not exercised self-determination. Nor had the ‘Asian’ and ‘Coloured’ peoples of South Africa found self-determination in the 1983 Tricameral Constitution. Neither diversionary measure did anything much to attenuate those freedom struggles, let alone exsanguinate them.  Liberation struggles were variously partitioned—with national self-determination a prime vehicle for the 1950s and 1960s; and less obviously so thereafter.”

This is precisely the point that I raise in my article, namely that in the cases of settler colonialism in Africa, as I show, efforts went into safeguarding the colonists and their property in Algeria, Kenya, and Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. What happened in post-1994 South Africa was not a great improvement over the situation described by Burke above. The ongoing efforts to safeguard white colonial-settler property in Zimbabwe and in post-Apartheid South Africa are also “diversionary measures” that did not do much to “attenuate” the struggles for freedom from settler colonialism, and neither did they do so in the Americas or Oceania. The ongoing racialized poverty and wealth in all these settler-colonial contexts, let alone racialized political power in the Americas and Oceania, testify to that.

The case of Palestine corresponds perfectly to these cases. Indeed, since my article was published, the Israeli government issued a new law in July 2018, dubbed “The Nation-State law,” which seeks to safeguard Jewish colonial-settler political and economic power regardless of demographics.[7] The Israeli settler-colony now accepts that Jewish colonists and their descendants will be forever a minority, especially so as prior measures to make them a majority, namely through ethnic cleansing and expulsions of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians as had happened in 1948 and 1967, are no longer available options. The new law specifies that the Jewish colonists have an exclusive right to self-determination in the land of the Palestinians: “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” This is made after the assertion that “The land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established,” and that “The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.” The point of the exclusivity of self-determination for the Jewish colonists, is that it must be exercised regardless of demographics. The Israeli settler colony had no choice but to drop the liberal-democratic pretense, which could only be kept up since 1948 through periodic bouts of ethnic cleansing that can no longer be carried out. Certainly this is a much more explicit measure than the maintenance of economic apartheid in post-1994 South Africa, but it is no more than a variation on a theme from the other extant settler colonies.

Xanthaki also partially resists my insistence that Palestine is not sui generis and is generalizable by claiming that Palestinians demand independence unlike indigenous peoples in the Americas and Oceania. In fact, this difference does not hold for long, especially as representatives of the Palestinians have not been demanding independence, but rather a bantustan-type state on a miniscule portion of their stolen land (which many have dubbed as no more than a “reservation,” and which in the best case scenario would not even have many of the rights South Africa’s bantustans had).

Kauanui’s response illustrates the extensibility of the Palestinian case further with a number of examples, including Guam, American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands, which, in addition to Hawaii, face a similar colonial-settler present as does Palestine. In her contribution, Kauanui addresses Simpson’s, Burke’s, and Xanthaki’s reservations that the case of Palestine and indigenous peoples elsewhere may not be alike. One important example that she cites is that the U.S. federal recognition of Native governing entities is one that “resembles the two-state solution” in the case of Palestine.

Burke felicitously concludes that “Against Self-Determination advances a sufficiently bold and vast claim that it tends to leave a reader grasping, desperately, frantically, for counter-arguments. There is no single riposte—and that serves as one of the article’s great successes.” When I was researching the history of self-determination, I too, like Burke, for whose audacious acknowledgment I am most grateful, was grasping for counter-arguments. Alas, I could not find any.


[1] See Roland Burke, “The Compelling Dialogue of Freedom: Human Rights at the Bandung Conference,” Human Rights Quarterly 28, no. 4 (November 2006): 947–65.

[2] Brad Simpson, “The Many Meanings of National Self-Determination,” Current History 113, no. 766 (November 2014): 312–17.

[3] Patrick Macklem, The Sovereignty of Human Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 156.

[4] See Andrew Erueti, “The Politics of International Indigenous Rights,” University of Toronto Law Journal 67, no. 4 (Fall 2017): 569–95.

[5] Karen Engle, The Elusive Promise of Indigenous Development: Rights, Culture, Strategy (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 2.

[6] Macklem, The Sovereignty of Human Rights, 140.

[7] The text of the law is reproduced in Raoul Whootliff, “Final Text of Jewish Nation-State Law, Approved by the Knesset Early on July 19,” Times of Israel, July 18, 2018, (accessed June 25, 2019).


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