The Concept of Peoples’ Rights in International Law, with Particular Reference to Africa

  • Javaid Rehman


The evolution of the concept of ‘peoples’ rights’ has been extremely influential for the progressive development of international law. The rights of peoples — and in particular, the right to self-determination, has had a tremendous impact in reshaping the global political geography: colonialism has ended and new states have emerged under the banner of the right to self-determination. Notwithstanding this considerable impact on international law and international relations, the conceptualisation of the term ‘peoples’, particularly in the post-colonial context, remains problematic. Modern state practice also fails to provide a clear set of guidelines as to the rights that peoples may have in general international law.


African State International Peace General Assembly Resolution African Charter Common Article 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    For Commentaries on the subject, see M. Promerance (1982) Self-Determination in Law and Practice: The New Doctrine in the United Nations (The Hague: M. Nijhoff) A. Sureda (1973) The Evolution of the Right to Self-Determination (Leiden: Sijhoff).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    In a statement before the Congress in 1916, President Wilson said, ‘Every People has a right to choose the sovereignty under which they shall live’, and in 1918 he was firmly of the belief that ‘All well defined national aspirations shall be accorded the utmost satisfaction that can be accorded them without introducing new or perpetuating old demands of discord and antagonism’: cited in M. Shaw (1986) Title to Territory in Africa, (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 60–1; of his famous fourteen points, Wilson’s fifth point was ‘A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined’: cited in M. Nawaz (1965) ‘The Meaning and Range of the Principle of Self-Determination’, Duke Law Journal, vol. 82, pp. 82–101.Google Scholar
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    According to Article 1(2), one of the purposes of the United Nations is to ‘develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for equal rights and self-determination of all peoples and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace’. The other reference is made in Article 55, according to which ‘with a view to the creation of conditions of stability and well-being which are necessary for peaceful and friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, the United Nations shall promote’, followed by a number of objectives.Google Scholar
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    Adopted 16 December 1966, GA Resolution 2200 (xxi) 993 UNTS 3.Google Scholar
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    See the Namibia case: ‘the subsequent developments of international law in regard to non-self governing territories, as enunciated in the Charter of the United Nations, made the principle of self-determination applicable to all of them’, ICJ Reports 1971, pp. 6, 31.Google Scholar
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    Western Sahara Cases ICJ Reports, 1975, pp. 12, 31–3; and Judge Dillard’s celebrated opinion, especially at p. 122. For a succinct discussion see A. Cassesse, ‘The International Court of Justice and the Right of Peoples to Self-Determination’ in V. Lowe and M. Fitzmaurice (eds.), Fifty Years of the International Court of Justice: Essays in the Honour of Sir Robert Jennings (Cambridge: Grotius Publications) 1996, pp. 351–363; J. Crawford, The General Assembly, the International Court and Self-Determination’, Ibid., pp. 585–605.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    General Assembly Resolution 1514 (xv).Google Scholar
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    See, for example, the Declaration of the Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation Amongst States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, GA Resolution 2625 (xxv) 1970.Google Scholar
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    See Article 3(3) of the Charter of Organisation of African Unity; Principle in of the Helsinki Final Act 1975, 1975 ILM 1292; Article 62 2(2)(a) Vienna Convention on the Law of the Treaties 1969, 58 UKTS, 1980, Cmnd 7964; Article 2 of the Vienna Convention of State succession in respect of treaties 1978 17 ILM 1488, 72 American Journal of International Law 971. For judicial acknowledgement of the principles, see Frontier Dispute case (Burkina Faso v Mali) 1986 ICJ Reports 554; G. Naldi (1987) ‘The Case Concerning the Frontier Dispute (Burkina Faso v Mali) Uti Possidetis in an African Perspective’ 36 International and Comparative Law Quarterly, pp. 893–903; Temple of Peach Vihar case (Merits) (Cambodia v Thailand) 1962 ICJ Rep 6, pp. 16, 29; Rann of Kutch Arbitration 1968, 50 ILR 2, p. 408; Guinea-Guinea Bissau Maritime Delimitation case 77 ILR 1985, pp. 635, 637; Arbitration Tribunal in Guinea-Bissau v Senegal, 1990, 83 ILR 1, 35; Land, Islands and Maritime Frontier case: El Salvador v Honduras (Nicaragua intervening), 1992 ICJ Rep pp. 351, 380; see also Sovereignty Over Certain Frontiers (Belgium v The Netherlands) ICJ Rep 1959, p. 209, in particular Judge Moeno Quitana’s dissenting opinion, p. 252; Avis Nos. 2 and 3 of the Arbitration Commission of the Yugoslavia Conference, 31 ILM pp. 1497, 1499; Taba Award (Egypt v Israel) 80 ILR 1989, pp. 224, in particular arbitrator Lapidoth’s dissenting opinion.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    For the position in Africa, see O. Ojo and A. Sesay (1986) ‘The OAU and Human Rights: Prospects for the 1980s and Beyond’, Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 8, pp. 89–103; R. Howard (1984) ‘Evaluating Human Rights in Africa: Some Problems of Implicit Comparisons’, Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 6, pp. 160–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 18.
    According to Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ‘In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.’Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    See, for example, Communication No 167/1984, Bernard Ominayak, Chief of the Lubican Lake Band v Canada, Report of the Human Rights Committee, Volume II GAOR 55th Session, Supplement No 40 (A/45/40), pp. 1–30.Google Scholar
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    United Nations Centre for Human Rights, Human Rights: Status of International Instruments (1987) 9 UN Sales NO E. 87. xiv. 2.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    See R. Kiwanuka (1988) ‘The Meaning of “Peoples” in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights’, American Journal of International Law, vol. 82, pp. 80–101.Google Scholar
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    For the text, see I. Brownlie (1981) Basic Documents in International Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press), p. 68.Google Scholar
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    OAU Doc CAB/LEG/67/3 Rev 5; 27 Rev ICJ; 21 ILM 59.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    For the text, see I. Brownlie (1981) Basic Documents in International Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press), p. 68.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Article 2(l)(b).Google Scholar
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    Ojo and Sesay, ‘The OAU and Human Rights’, p. 89.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Article 2(l)(c) and (d).Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Article 3(3).Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Cited in J. Klabbers and R. Lefeber (1993), ‘Africa: Lost between Self-Determination and Uti-Possidetis’, in C. Brolmann, R. Lefeber and M. Zieck (eds), Peoples and Minorities in International Law (Dordrecht: M. Nijhoff), pp. 33–76, 57.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    According to Article 19, ‘All Peoples shall be equal; they shall enjoy the same respect and shall have the same rights. Nothing shall justify the domination of a people by another.’Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    According to Article 20: (1) All Peoples shall have the right to existence. They shall have the unquestionable and inalienable right to self-determination. They shall freely determine their political status and shall pursue their economic and social development according to the policy they have freely chosen. (2) Colonized and oppressed peoples shall have the right to free themselves from the bonds of domination by resorting to any means recognised by the international community. (3) All Peoples shall have the right to the assistance of the States Parties to the present Charter in their liberation struggle against foreign domination, be it political, economic or cultural.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    According to Article 21 (1): ‘All peoples shall freely dispose of their wealth and natural resources. This right shall be exercised in the exclusive interest of the people. In no case shall a people be deprived of it.’Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    According to Article 21(1): ‘All peoples shall have the right to their economic, social and cultural development with due regard to their freedom and identity and in the equal enjoyment of the common heritage of mankind.’Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Article 23 provides as follows: (1) All Peoples shall have the right to national and international peace and security. The principles of solidarity and friendly relations implicitly affirmed by the Charter of the United Nations and reaffirmed by that of the Organization of the African Unity shall govern relations between States. (2) For the purpose of strengthening peace, solidarity and friendly relations, States parties to the present Charter shall ensure that: (a) any individual enjoying the right of asylum under Article 12 of the present Charter shall not engage in subversive activities against his country of origin or any other State party to the present Charter; (b) their territories shall not be used as bases for subversive or terrorist activities against the peoples of any other State party to the present Charter.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Article 24.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    See H. Lauterpacht (1945) An International Bill of Rights of Man (New York: Columbia University Press); B. Ramcharan (1981), ‘Equality and Non-Discrimination’, in L. Henkin (ed.), The International Bill of Rights: The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (New York: Columbia University Press), pp. 246–69.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    See Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) 78 UNTS 277; 58 UKTS 1970.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Article 20(2).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2000

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  • Javaid Rehman

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