Against the Right of Self-Determination

27 Pages Posted: 4 Aug 2011 Last revised: 11 Aug 2011

Kyla Reid

University of Sydney

Date Written: August 9, 2011


This paper argues that the discourse of self-determination should be rejected, or at least subject to serious skepticism, as the ideal discourse for articulating indigenous governance claims. First, this paper argues that some indigenous governance claims include a claim for non-statist governance forms. Given this non-statist orientation, the right to self-determination as formulated within the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) presents indigenous peoples with two equally unsatisfying scenarios: (i) the state is assumed legitimate and thus, non-statist communities, regardless of their claims, are subject to its authority or (ii) in order to be recognized as a viable alternative, non-statist groups must be prepared to exercise authority in a way that resembles the authority of the state. I refer to the combination of these scenarios as the double bind of the state. In the third section, I critically evaluate Allen Buchanan's attempts to rethink self-determination. I argue that Buchanan's account, like the framework for self-determination outlined in UNDRIP, fails to escape the double bind of the state. In the fourth section, I turn to Iris Marion Young's formulation. Whereas Buchanan fails to take the challenge to the paradigm of the state present in some indigenous governance claims seriously, Young's framework accommodates non-statist claims. That said, Young's continued use of the terminology of self-determination does no significant work in her account and, in fact, only serves to obscure the more radical aspects of her project. I argue it is more productive to read Young, not as rethinking self-determination, but as indicating, through the introduction of relational autonomy, the possibility for a political space beyond the state, and thus, beyond the current rights language of self-determination.

Keywords: self-determination, indigenous peoples, Allan Buchanan, Iris Marion Young

Suggested Citation

Reid, Kyla, Against the Right of Self-Determination (August 9, 2011). Available at SSRN: or

Kyla Reid (Contact Author)

University of Sydney ( email )


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