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Decolonization and the United Nations: An International Law Perspective

Decolonization is a political process that has been underway since the end of World War II, with the goal of bringing an end to the centuries-old colonial system. The phenomena arose from the concept of peoples' self-determination and is primarily affirmed in the post-onusian community, resulting in the emergence of a huge number of new subjects within the international community. When the official decolonization process ended in the late 1970s, international law began to use the term "self-determination" to describe all countries and populations that had not yet achieved full governmental independence.

Special Committee of 24 on the ending of colonialism,  United Nations Headquarters,  New York [Photo] - Legal UN
Special Committee of 24 on the ending of colonialism, United Nations Headquarters, New York [Photo] - Legal UN

The United Nations has played a key role in the process of decolonization. This has been a significant process that stems from the international community's collective will and is based on various legal instruments, such as the United Nations Charter and the United Nations Covenants of 1966, which explain and define the principle and its outcomes, and which have been taken up by the International Courts. The United Nation's General Assembly (UNGA) took action in this area, consisting of the adoption of resolutions and declarations of principles; in addition, the Assembly established a body to oversee this process of decolonization in specific regions, the Special Committee for Decolonization, beginning in 1961. Even if the meaning of decolonization has changed since the Second World War, particularly as some states seek emancipation from colonial rule, the issue of colonization remains relevant and open today.

Decolonization, in the contemporary sense, refers to processes of self-determination, involving non-autonomous regions that require aid, in the formation of their own institutions and self-government. However, considering the nature of the acts adopted by bodies like the General Assembly and the Committee of 24 - the special Committee set up by UN to study and observe the situation over the decolonization process - namely non-binding acts and reports based on hearings with the administrator nation, this is a complex issue that is not easy to manage.

Colonization pattern in 1945 [image] - Legal UN
Colonization pattern in 1945 [image] - Legal UN.

The notion of peoples' self-determination is at the heart of the decolonization process. Self-determination is not new to the modern international community, as it was already present in the classical community: it was originally expressed in the eighteenth century with the French and American revolutions, and was later revived by Wilson at the turn of the twentieth century. The notion of self-determination waned in the classical community in the sense of freedom from oppression and empire, however, it retained its traditional definition, serving primarily as a tool for determining state borders, rather than referring to people as individuals who required self-determination, within their own state, and with the ability to freely select their own fate.

The United Nations Charter, which enshrines the principle of self-determination, in Article 1, paragraph 2, as a cornerstone of the UN legal system and a cornerstone of international relations between states founded on peace and justice, represents a significant step forward in the post-World War II community. Since then, various declarations and normative instruments have enshrined the principle of peoples' self-determination, as well as countless rulings of the International Court of Justice based on the notion. This is because, as a result of the decolonization process, national liberation groups, whose goal is to lead people to self-determination, have gained prominence in the global society.

The United Nations General Assembly has been persistent and significant in confirming and recognizing the idea of peoples' self-determination. First and foremost, we must recall the resolution 1514 of 1960, also known as the "Declaration of Independence of Colonial Nations and Peoples," in which the first two points emphasize that the subjugation of a people by a foreign power is a violation of the United Nations Charter, and that every national group has the right to freely pursue their own development and thus choose their own destiny.

United Nations Committee of 24 reunion [Photo] - History Central
United Nations Committee of 24 reunion [Photo] - History Central

The resolution also establishes the right to react and resist any form of oppression used to deny the right to self-determination, as well as the possibility of seeking assistance from third countries. The notion of self-determination is enshrined in art. 1 of the two United Nations Covenants of 1966. Furthermore, art. 3 identifies the responsibilities of the power that must accompany the State on its own path to self-determination, which include facilitating the process in the broadest sense of the term, while avoiding depriving the people concerned; similarly, third States must comply with self-determination process and take measures in accordance with the UN Charter if it is hampered. Then, within res. 2625 1970, UNGA recognized the principle of peoples' equality and the right to self-determination as one of the seven principles of international law and replaces the provisions of art. 1 of the 1966 Covenants on Peoples' Rights and State Administrator's Duties. The resolution emphasizes that while independence is the natural conclusion of the self-determination process, people might sometimes choose a different route. In fact, the self-appointed people have the option of entering into a free association relationship with the controlling power, as Palau did with the United States in 1994, or any other status derived from self-determination.

The first Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, which legally qualifies a conflict between authorities representing a people fighting for self-determination and the occupying power as an international conflict rather than a non-national conflict, is also relevant in the field of legislative instruments. Looking at recent practice, we must also consider the International Court of Justice's work on the principle of self-determination, the most important statements of which can be found in the opinions on Namibia from 1971 and Western Sahara from 1975, where the Court affirms the centrality of this principle. The Court reiterated in its 1995 ruling on East Timor that the notion of self-determination was unacceptable as a fundamental international law. The Court recently decided on the question of the Chagos Islands' secession from Mauritius; underlining an important consequence of this right, already present in the 1960 Declaration of the General Assembly: territorial integrity, by emphasizing the jus cogens nature of the self-determination rule, both as an interpretative rule and as a rule of legal interest. The Court stated that the process of self-determination should embrace the entire territory, not just a portion of it, and then emphasized the necessity for representatives of the people seeking self-determination to exercise their free will. The General Assembly also defined the British presence in the Chagos Islands as a colonial government, opposing Mauritius' full and legitimate sovereignty, in the resolution 73/1975 of February 2019. As a result, the islands were returned to Mauritius within 6 months.

Twenty-ninth Session of the General Assembly, Fourth Committee (Trust and Non-Self-Governing Territories),  United Nations Headquarters,  New York. [Photo] - Legal UN
Twenty-ninth Session of the General Assembly, Fourth Committee (Trust and Non-Self-Governing Territories), United Nations Headquarters, New York. [Photo] - Legal UN

Significant progress has been made in the process of decolonisation since the establishment of the United Nations, with a significant growth in the international community. The progress of decolonisation and the emancipation of various peoples through their right to self-determination has undoubtedly been aided by international law. As a general principle, 'self-determination' has received no persistent objections; however, in practice, it has been observed that in some cases a 'power', involved in the the self- determination process, does not qualify as such, or that the power concerned believes that the people's right to self-determination has been fully expressed and completed. Nonetheless, as research shows, a state's fully independent process to self-determination, that has not yet been completed and that, given the position of some administrative powers vis-à-vis certain states, it is unlikely to be completed in the near future.


  • A/RES/2625 (XXV) of 24 October 1970. (1970). UN General Assembly.

  • The beginnings of decolonisation and the emergence of the non-aligned states - Historical events in the European integration process (1945–2014) - CVCE Website. (2021). CVCE.Eu.

  • Harding, B. A. (2021, January 28). UN court rules UK has no sovereignty over Chagos islands. BBC News.

  • Mishra, P. (2021). Fundamentals, Core Concepts, Decolonization Theory and Practice. Racial Equity Tools.

  • OHCHR | Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. (1960). OHCHR.

  • OHCHR | International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. (1966). OHCHR.

  • United Nations. (1945). UN Charter.

  • What is decolonization? (2021). Interdependence: Global Solidarity and Local Actions.

Image references

  • Special Committee of 24 on the ending of colonialism, United Nations Headquarters, New York [Photo] - Legal UN.

  • Colonization pattern in 1945 [image] - Legal UN.

  • Twenty-ninth Session of the General Assembly, Fourth Committee (Trust and Non-Self-Governing Territories), United Nations Headquarters, New York. [Photo] - Legal UN.

  • United Nations Committee of 24 reunion [Photo] - History Central.


Patricia Estenoso
Patricia Estenoso
Jan 10, 2022

Very comprehensive article! Illustrates the significant progress of the topic at hand. Well done!

Federica Panico
Federica Panico
Jan 10, 2022
Replying to

Thank you Patricia!

Author Photo

Federica Panico

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