Autonomous Regions

By: Teagan Chandler Hale

All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development (UN General Assembly Resolution 1514)

This article provides a concise explanation on autonomous regions. To begin, the word autonomy will be broken down to its linguistic roots to create a link with the cardinal principle of self-determination and its influence on current discourse in modern political thought.

With autonomy and self-determination established, the article will then provide a characterisation of the defining features of autonomous regions while examining its pragmatism and criticisms.

To fully understand autonomous regions, the meaning and origins of the word autonomy must be broken down. The word autonomy is molded from the Ancient Greek words’ “auto” referring to the self and “nomos” referring to a law, custom, or institution.

Philosophically espousing the belief of the self as a conscious and rational actor, individual autonomy is the “capacity to be one’s own person, to live one’s life according to reasons and motives that are taken as one’s own and not the product of manipulative or distorting external forces”(Christman, 2018).

To be autonomous is for one to be one’s own person with direction driven by the innate “considerations, desires, conditions, and characteristics that are not simply imposed externally upon one, but are part of what can somehow be considered one’s authentic self”(Christman, 2018).

Within this frame, autonomy denotes a natural and unalienable right inherent to one’s rational being, and its deprivation can be interpreted as an egregious attack against the core of one’s self.

To deny one’s autonomy is to deny them sovereignty over their personal lives. A lack of autonomy means one has no agency over the actions of their lives and are consequentially susceptible to external influences counterintuitive to their desires.

Autonomy creates the constitution of humanity; an idea heavily reinforced by Immanuel Kant, renowned Enlightenment philosopher, who proclaimed “that every rational being had both an innate right to freedom and a duty to entire into a civil condition governed by a social contract in order to realize and preserve that freedom”(Rauscher, 2017).

Coexisting with autonomy is the concept of self-determination, or simply the freedom for a political community to choose and dictate its own governance. More aptly, Vashum citing Johnson and Singh in Self-Determination and World Order states self-determination “has come to mean independence from alien rule.

It postulates sovereignty as resting with the people who are free to monitor the territorial limits within which they desire their sovereignty to be active. In order for people to be free, they must be able to organize their future independently from others”(1996, p. 66).

A concept which manifested during the era of European imperialism and internationally expressed in the Fourteen Points speech by United States President Woodrow Wilson during World War I, self-determination enshrines the right for persons to choose their own government, economic system, laws, and customs as defined by the attributes of their cultural values.

This sentiment resonates within the United Nations Charter (Article 1, Part 2) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 15) among various General Assembly Resolutions (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights).

These ideals have become cardinal within modern international thought, becoming a guiding principle throughout late 20th Century politics. To illustrate, self-determination served as the foundation for the decolonization process, providing the infrastructure for former colonized countries to develop the capacity to fashion their own governments and become self-sustainable.

The Self Determination Theory is used to understand the guiding decisions and behavior of human motivation. With autonomy already defined, competence is “supported by providing the person with optimal challenges and encouraging their sense of initiation, providing structure to mobilize and organize behavior, providing consistent and clear expectations, rules, and consequences, and providing relevant feedback”(University of Rochester, n.d).

Political competence closely corresponds with legislation and governance within a political unit. From here stems relatedness which is “supported when others are involved and show interest in the person’s activities, are empathic in responding to their feelings and convey that the person is significant, cared for, and loved”(University of Rochester, n.d).

In a political context, relatedness corresponds to the shared communal and identity values held within a political community and civic duties such as voting. Presupposing political theory on this model, self-determination is consequentially the culmination of political autonomy, political competency, and political relatedness which henceforth creates political motivation for self-governance.

Aristotle’s quote in his famous Politics “Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. In addition, he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either above humanity, or below it” reflects this triangular relationship and need for self- determination.

If man and woman are by nature political animals, then man and woman will naturally develop and seek political associations to satisfy their needs in order to preserve their integrity as autonomous beings.

With the theoretical portion explained, from here do we get the interesting and peculiar nature of autonomous regions. The peculiarity stems from the fact that autonomous regions are allowed to govern and administer themselves within the territorial boundaries of a national government.

They are autonomous and self-determined, yet it is delegated to them by an external authority. Expertly defined in The American Journal of International Law, “Autonomous areas are regions of a State, usually possessing some ethnic or cultural distinctiveness, which have been granted separate powers of internal administration, to whatever degree, without being detached from the State of which they are part”(Hannum & Lillich, 1980, p. 858).

To add, autonomous regions refers to independence on the internal or domestic level “as foreign affairs and defense normally are in the hands of the central or national government, but occasionally power to conclude international agreements concerning cultural or economic matters also may reside with the autonomous entity”(Hannum & Lillich, 1980, p. 860). This is generally expressed through regional taxation practises that differ from that of the state itself.

In other words, autonomous regions are internal areas of state with higher degrees of autonomy and expression compared to others due to their geographical or cultural distinction.

These regions are allowed to express themselves without interference of the State while simultaneously existing a part of it. Inherently, autonomous regions are a political “compromise between independence and complete integration”(Foldvary, 2011, p. 854) resulting from disputes causing civil strife. Declaratively so, autonomous regions are unilaterally minority communities.

The State in this way balances ethnocultural diversity with national integration by granting minority communities autonomy in its territorial boundaries. It is mutually beneficial for all parties as the State appeases the population in an area it lacks commonalities but has vested geopolitical interests in while the minority population becomes autonomous and self-determined.

China who in response to minority groups accounting for 8.4% of the population “started formulating a series of ethnic policies in the early 50s, including policies on identifying and classifying ethnic groups, a system of regional ethnic autonomy, and a set of preferential treatment policies toward 55 minorities”(Wu & He, 2018, p. 185).

Today, China has five autonomous regions (Guangxi, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Tibet, Xinjiang) and two special administrative regions having the highest degree of autonomy (Macau and Hong Kong).

Establishing autonomous zones is therefore a pacifier which can resolve internal disputes with peaceful constitutional and legislative solutions before it manifests into sectarian violence.

Likewise, the European Union sees the utility of autonomy as evident in a 2003 report by the Parliamentary Assembly summarizing autonomous regions “as applied in states governed by the rule of law can be a source of inspiration in seeking ways to resolve internal political conflicts.

Autonomy allows a group which is a minority within a state to exercise its rights, while providing certain guarantees of the state’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity” (Parliamentary Assembly, 2003). The State preserves its integrity while respecting the rights of minorities who may feel marginalized; autonomy is therefore not only a philosophical thought and psychological impetus, but also a political solution.

Though autonomous regions are in essence a form of power sharing creating peace, the power sharing can expand conflicts and have unintended consequences. For example, a domino effect can occur when one population is granted autonomy in a region and others wish to follow suit, or it can exacerbate to a flashpoint where “territorial autonomy granted to a national minority ethnic group may in turn create or oppress the local minorities in these territories and trigger new mobilizations” (Ferrer, 2012, pp. 2098–2099).

Moreover, autonomous regions are not fully sovereign and are functionally still subject to the territorial jurisdiction of the State meaning if a dispute arises their laws would not supersede those of the national government.

There is no universally accepted standard of how much autonomy regions have as it varies significantly per country with complex bureaucracy and political challenges. For instance, an autonomous region might have citizenship of the State but are barred direct participation in State’s politics, such as the case of Puerto Rico and the United States.

Autonomy might not be perpetual in the case of The One Country; Two Systems deal between China and Hong Kong ending in 2047 creating the question of whether if Hong Kong will become fully assimilated or if China will extend their autonomy in the future.

The Kurdistan population stretches into Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey; Iraqi Kurdistan stands alone as the sole autonomous region after much turmoil with the others vying for autonomy (Turkey) or even complete independence (Kurdish Syria due to the Syrian Civil War).

Eventually a region may seek more autonomy or seek independence, which then creates internal conflict pitting populations against one another. Comparatively so autonomous regions despite their practical implementation can form precarious political crisis’ which can threaten the integrity of a State, begging the question of whether autonomous regions have long-term viability.

To summarize, autonomous regions are designated areas of a state given to a self-determined minority population who are allowed to govern and administer themselves as they see fit.

These regions with their minority populations are culturally and geographically different, which is why they are given special status creating a mutually beneficial relationship. Though they exist apart of a State and do not supersede it, they are still politically independent with vested power to govern themselves with little to no external pressure.

The political ideology of autonomous regions is based eponymously on the idealization of autonomy and the psychological variables driving human behavior towards self-determination.

Criticism arises however from when autonomous regions and national governments disagree on certain issues, raising the question of how can a region be truly autonomous and self-determined if said ideals are given by an external authority and can also be revoked by an external authority.

Are they truly autonomous? Are they truly self-determined? Should complete sovereignty and independent be sought? Is being autonomous in a region a victory in itself? These questions are inevitably asked and debated with no easy answer.


Christman, J. (2018). Autonomy in Moral and Political Philosophy. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018). Retrieved from

Ferrer, M. C. (2012). To share or divide power? Minorities in autonomous regions, the case of the autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 35(12), 2097–


Foldvary, F. E. (2011). Political Autonomy. In D. K. Chatterjee (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Global

Justice (pp. 853–854).

Hannum, H., & Lillich, R. B. (1980). The Concept of Autonomy in International Law. The

American Journal of International Law, 74(4), 858–889.

Parliamentary Assembly. (2003). Positive experiences of autonomous regions as a source of

inspiration for conflict resolution in Europe. Retrieved September 20, 2019, from


Rauscher, F. (2017). Kant’s Social and Political Philosophy. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford

Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017). Retrieved from

University of Rochester. (n.d.). Self-Determination Theory of Motivation - University of

Rochester Medical Center - University of Rochester Medical Center. Retrieved

September 21, 2019, from


Vashum, R. (1996). Self-Determination: Principles, Meanings and Practices. Indian

Anthropologist, 26(1), 63–76. Retrieved from JSTOR.

Wu, X., & He, G. (2018). Ethnic Autonomy and Ethnic Inequality: An Empirical Assessment of Ethnic Policy in Urban China. China Review, 18(2), 185–216. Retrieved from JSTOR.

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