There is no principle in international law more fundamental than the right of all peoples to self-determination. This is universally accepted by the entire world, yet nearly 70 years after the signing of the UN Charter, the United States continues to fight tooth and nail against this most basic human right.
On December 18, the U.S. was one of only seven countries to vote against a UN General Assembly resolution that passed with 180 votes affirming the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.
Earlier this year, the U.S. also found themselves on the wrong side of the international consensus when the UN Special Committee on Decolonization approved a statement to “reaffirm the inalienable right of the people of Puerto Rico to self-determination.”
Self-determination “denotes the legal right of people to decide their own destiny in the international order,” according to the Legal Information Institute.
This right was enshrined in international law with its inclusion in the UN Charter in 1945. Article 1 of the Charter states that one of the purposes of the United Nations is: “to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.”
In the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, this was made even more explicit: “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”
For people deprived of equal rights and political participation, self-determination could take many forms: independence, assimilation, sovereign association, or another form they choose for themselves. But no one has a right to self-determination at the expense of someone else.
“It is well known that any attempt to deny a human group its self-determination only intensifies its demand for sovereignty and enhances its collective identity,” writes Shlomo Sand in The Invention of the Jewish People. “This does not, of course, give a particular group that sees itself as a people the right to dispossess another group of its land in order to achieve its self-determination. But that is precisely what happened in Mandatory Palestine in the first half of the twentieth century.”
Some people justify Israel’s right to exist by claiming that Jewish people deserve self-determination just like all other peoples. But European Zionists seeking self-determination did not have a right to conquer the indigenous population of an already-populated land to establish a state which did not include Palestinians. In 1947, Jews represented no more than 33% of the population and owned no more than 10% of the land in Mandatory Palestine. There is no justification for ethnically cleansing people, stealing their land, and preventing the return of refugees for seven decades in order to manipulate the demographics of the state and engineer an artificial ruling majority.
The United States has never respected self-determination as a concept or a right. As independence movements from Asia to Africa to the Middle East fought wars of liberation following World War II, the United States fought on the side of colonial domination and subjugation.
Self-determination is not just a utopian ideal. It is a legal right. The contents of the UN Charter and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – as well as all treaties ratified by the U.S. government – are the “supreme law of the land,” per Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, prevention of self-determination is a legally enforceable human rights violation.
The “traditional American conception” of self-determination, writes Noam Chomsky in The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians, is that “we will determine, since we are plainly the authentic representatives of the Palestinians – as of the Filipinos, the Nicaraguans, the Greeks, the Vietnamese, the Chileans, the Salvadorans, and many others who have been privileged to enjoy our beneficient attentions.”
When France decided to abandon a failed war to maintain colonial rule over Vietnam, the United States stepped in and escalated the war, carrying out wholesale slaughter of people seeking their liberation. U.S. military forces killed between 2.5 and 5 million Vietnamese, most of them civilians, in an attempt to prevent them from choosing their socioeconomic system on their own.
When the Portuguese dictatorship fell in 1974, clearing the way for independence for former colonies like Angola, the United States encouraged South Africa to invade that country the next year to install a puppet government friendly to the apartheid regime. The racist South Africans would have succeeded if it weren’t for a massive military intervention by Cuba on behalf of the populist Angolan government that crushed the invading forces and sent them back to Pretoria with their tail between their legs.
In 1898, American ships landed at Guánica. One hundred sixteen years later, Puerto Rico is still a colonial possession of the United States. In 1946, Puerto Rico was placed on the United Nations List of Non-Self Governing-Territories. The United States was forced to report regularly on the island’s political status with the goal of decolonization. Not willing to give up ownership of their tropical cash cow, the U.S. backed a new Puerto Rican Constitution that disguised the colonial status of the island. It was given the euphemistic status of a “Commonwealth,” in which the U.S. maintained sovereignty over Puerto Rico. Only the U.S. Congress – which Puerto Ricans cannot elect representatives to or participate in – is empowered to relinquish sovereignty over the island.
The United States has partnered with Israel in keeping Palestinians stateless since the creation of the Israeli state in 1948. In Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Israel has occupied since 1967, Palestinians do not have citizenship in any state and do not enjoy sovereignty over the territory the entire world has recognized as their own.
Israel has for decades demonstrated that it intends to maintain the nearly half-century occupation indefinitely and prevent any Palestinian state. Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party charter states: “The Jordan river will be the permanent eastern border of the State of Israel,” and “The government will flatly reject Palestinian proposals to divide Jerusalem.” As the majority party in the Knesset, they have been carrying this out in practice.
There is an name for ruling over people while preventing them from being part of the political process that governs their lives. It’s called colonialism, In international law, it is a crime against humanity.
Israel’s plan is to simply continue the status quo under the guise of a “peace process.” While Israel, with the help of the United States, uses the farcical cover of negotiations, they continue to steal Palestinian land and water while transferring in hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis onto stolen land and evicting residents of East Jerusalem to clear the way for more Jews.
It is what historian Illan Pappe and others have called “slow-motion genocide.” They create the conditions intended to drive as many Palestinians as possible from their land – to Jordan, Syria, or anywhere outside Greater Israel. They hope that as more 1948 refugees grow older and die their ancestors will lose their claim to the land they were systematically driven away from before the formation of the state of Israel. In this way, the Jewish state hopes to establish its permanence from the Jordan river to the Sea.
All this is only possible because the Israeli states denies Palestinians sovereignty to govern themselves or participate in a binational arrangement to share governance in Greater Israel. People who can’t vote and have no voice in these policies obviously cannot change them. Which is why it is so important to Israel to continue to deny Palestinians self-determination. Preserving their colonial domination over territory and people they have conquered is much more important to Israel than having a legitimate claim to being a democratic state that values human rights.
The rest of the world showed in voting for the UN resolution affirming the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination how isolated the U.S. and Israel are as they cling to a morally and legally indefensible position. Only Canada and four American client states (all tiny Pacific Island nations) joined them in voting against the measure.
The vote is a “strong affirmation of the international support for the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, led by their right to self-determination and liberation,” said Riyad Mansour, Permanent Palestinian Observer at the UN.
When the Palestinians finally are able to achieve their basic human right of self-determination, it will be in spite of decades of U.S. interference and complicity in Israeli repression. As they were in Vietnam and Southern Africa, and as they continue to be in Puerto Rico, the United States will shamefully be on the wrong side of history.