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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

Self-Determination through a Feminist Foreign Policy Lens

Updated: Apr 13, 2021

By Kirthi Jayakumar

Image: Mama Cash (Link)

Under public international law, the right to self-determination refers to the legal right of a people to decide their own identity and destiny within the ambit of the existing international order. Rooted in customary international law, the right to self-determination has also been crystallized in treaty law, such as in the UN Charter and the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights as a right of all people. The right to self-determination became a significant springboard for the end of colonization after World War II, as it paved the way for several new states to emerge as independent, sovereign states.

Self-determination exists across a spectrum that comprises internal and external self-determination – the former implying the acquisition of particular social and political rights, and the latter being complete secession and formation of a new state. Whichever form, the Westphalian template continues to endure as the acceptable “outcome” of self-determination – meaning that any and all “peoples” that self-determine are evaluated against the tenets of state recognition and are either recognized or not, accordingly. This has also meant that the violence on which the Westphalian order has been established and the erasure of alternative forms of governance and products of self-determination continue are problematic challenges that the incumbent system neither addresses nor talks about.

The Westphalian state suffers from patriarchy, colonization, heteronormativity, capitalism, racism, imperialism, militarism, and casteism, which are its fundamental attributes.

Consequently, it isn’t surprising that colonialism, especially settler colonialism, which has imposed the Westphalian template on ethno-national and cultural-national regions, has erased governance of any kind that does not align with the Westphalian state order. The Westphalian system destroyed ethno-national cultures of ethno-nations that emerged as independent states within it (Luce 2006).

Alternatives to the State

The international response to self-determination movements is centred on politics rather than on principle. There is a formal recognition of the right to self-determination of peoples who “remain under colonial domination and foreign occupation” (United Nations Millennium Declaration 2000), and not of any others. External self-determination challenges the fundamental roots of sovereignty, namely, territorial integrity. To preserve territorial integrity, although there is no formal mechanism in place for redrawing borders, current international relations praxis has established a mechanism of state recognition – which means that other states must legitimize, through formal recognition, the emergence of a new state.

However, there are alternatives to statehood that may not be as destructive to ethno-national culture in the pursuit of self-determination (Luce 2006). The sanctity of the state and its identity as the supreme representative of all peoples within its territory have often led to the entire dismissal of alternative forms of governance (Nietschmann 1987). Luce (2006, citing Hannum, 1993) identifies some of these approaches: (a) autonomy through internal self-determination in order to protect against discrimination and to preserve cultural, linguistic, and other values from majority assault (b) autonomy through a federal system or the devolution of meaningful power. She cites the examples of the Inuit of Greenland, the Kuna of Panama, and the Romani of Europe and establishes how ethno-nations define the extent of their interactions with and separation from the State.

Self-Determination through a Feminist Foreign Policy Lens

As Manuela Picq (2018) noted, “Indigenous women are perceived far more often as static cultural artefacts than as dynamic political agents…” and “…epitomize the antithesis of world politics.” She goes on to chronicle the endeavours of indigenous women in participating in and shaping state practice and international politics through different forms of resistance: the Amazonia women who resisted colonial conquest, the Indian women who litigated in Spanish courts and led uprisings against colonial invasions, Bartolina Sisa and Tupak Katari led powerful armies during the 1782 siege of La Paz, and the Kichwa women who shaped 20th century politics in Ecuador. It is no wonder, then, that the imposition of the Westphalian template on ethno-national and indigenous communities has affected and caused the greatest setback for indigenous women.

What we know, name, and argue for in the present as Feminist Foreign Policy has its fount in indigenous women’s activism and resistance to colonialism, as well as state practice. To produce a meaningful shift in governance paradigms, it isn’t enough to centre women-specific and women-centric policies in international relations. It is fundamental to look within first, to challenge established and entrenched systems of systemic power and violence that culminated in the erasure, discrimination, and marginalization of indigenous and ethno-national communities.

Seen this way, the language of Feminist Foreign Policy calls for a shift in the referent object of traditional international relations. It also calls for the centring of voices, narratives, and calls for a global introspection on the hierarchy of contemporary global systems. A plain reading of the scope of feminist foreign policy suggests that it holds space within for self-determination to find greater empathetic space to not only present its claims and push for its cause, but to also find ways to transition into independence more peacefully. The paradigm also offers room for an alternative means for that self-determination to manifest: a return to ethno-national praxis is one, but also paving the way for the agency of those whose self-determination defines the movement to shape their own futures.

To do so, we must begin by decolonizing our minds, our scholarship, and our way of engaging with communities beyond our own, especially the circles of privilege we continue to benefit from. We must acknowledge that indigenous and traditional systems are by no means primitive or “alternatives” as though the mainstream (malestream!) is the only acceptable standard. We must acknowledge, as Vine Deloria (National Indigenous Women’s Resource Centre n.d.) said, that “…if we don’t bring those traditions back, then the problems those traditions solved are going to continue to grow.” The idea of imposing approaches to governance – be that in the Westphalian form from the inception or in the modern version of that imposition that thrives in the name of humanitarian intervention to spread liberal democracy – must be dispensed with to make a start.


Hannum, Hurst. "Self-determination, Yugoslavia, and Europe: old wine in new bottles." Transnat'l L. & Contemp. Probs. 3 (1993): 57.

Luce, C. A. (2006). Culture Loss and Alternatives to Statehood: Lessons from the Inuit, Kuna and Romani (Doctoral dissertation, University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center).

Nietschmann, Bernard. "Militarization and Indigenous Peoples." Cultural Survival Quarterly 11, no. 3 (1987): 1-16.

Vita Gudeleviciute, Does the Principle of Self-determination Prevail over the Principle of Territorial Integrity?, International Journal of Baltic Law, Vytautas Magnus University School of Law, Volume 2, No. 2 (April 2005).

Picq, Manuela Lavinas. Vernacular sovereignties: indigenous women challenging world politics. University of Arizona Press, 2018.

National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, Sovereignty: An Inherent Right to Self Determination.

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