“Strengthening democracy requires giving citizens the #RightToChoose how they are governed”

Dr. Anwen Elias, reader in Politics at the department of International Politics of Aberystwyth University

News / 17.1.23

Dr. Anwen Elias, reader in Politics at the departement of International Politics of Aberystwyth University, spoke at the 4th Session of the Forum on Human Rights, Democracy and Rule of Law of the Human Rights Council of the UN in Geneva.

Self-determination movements are movements – political parties and civil society organisations – that demand more autonomy for the regions and nations that they represent, ranging from more decentralisation within, to full independence from, the larger state.

In many of Europe’s sub-state regions and nations, dissatisfaction with democracy predates, but has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Across Europe, movements for self-determination have long denounced the deficiencies in the operation of democratic institutions and processes in pluri-national states. From this perspective, a low level of trust in government – especially central governments – is nothing new and long predates the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified many self-determination movements’ dissatisfaction with existing democratic structures of government. As a result, debates about the constitutional future of Europe’s sub-state regions and nations has intensified in many places.

Many movements have criticised central government responses to the pandemic and argued that a different kind of constitutional settlement would have allowed their sub-state region or nation to pursue different and better policies. Others – especially political parties in regional governments – have contrasted central government failures with their own policy successes in tackling the pandemic. This has fuelled calls in many places for a different set of constitutional arrangements, as a way of delivering more effective, accountable, transparent and inclusive government.

How can democracy be strenghtened in sub-state regions and nations?

From the perspective of self-determination movements in Europe, strengthening democracy by “building back better” requires giving citizens the democratic “right to choose” how they are governed.

  1. We call on the UN to recognise the democratic right of peoples to self-determination. Claims for citizens’ democratic “right to choose” how they are governed continue to proliferate in Europe and around the world. However, the international community has resisted granting self-determination via a democratic process. Any meaningful attempt at strengthening democracy cannot ignore the fundamental disconnect between citizens in many regions and nations, and democratic and governance institutions in plurinational states which they do not perceive to represent them.
  2. We call on the UN to encourage Member States to engage constructively with claims for a democratic right to self-determination, and explore options for implementing this right in practice. In the last decade, calls for a democratic “right to choose” have increasingly been linked to the right to hold a referendum on independence. Referendums provide a tool for assessing or demonstrating the political legitimacy of a claim to independence.

However, there are also other ways in which claims for self-determination can – and should – be debated.

We advocate more open, inclusive, participatory and deliberative debate about how pluri-national democracies are organised and operate.

Such a debate is currently taking place in Wales, through a ‘national conversation’ on the nation’s constitutional future within the United Kingdom. This case can serve as an exemplar of how to engage with, take seriously, and seek to build new democratic legitimacy around questions of self-determination in Europe and around the world.


If you are interested on self-determination movements in Europe, you can download our publication “Movements for self-determination in Europe, an analytical cartography” here.

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Coppieters Foundation is financially supported by the European Parliament. The European Parliament is not liable for the content of the conferences, events or the opinions of the authors of our publications.

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