Territorial Autonomy


For the purpose of this online tool, territorial autonomy (TA) is defined as asymmetrical or symmetrical self-government of a territorial entity within a state, which is characterized by substantial ethno-cultural and/or territorial diversity. This working definition derives from responses to three key questions.

HOW is self-government exercised? Territorial self-government within a state may be exercised in the context of a symmetrical or asymmetrical overall framework of the state. While TA in a broad sense comprises both symmetrical and asymmetrical designs, TA is sometimes understood in a strict sense as encompassing only the latter. Where symmetry prevails, autonomous territories have essentially the same legal status (e.g. Kenya). Under asymmetry, bv contrast, there is differentiation, as one or more specific territorial entities have within their respective state, and in comparison to other entities, some sort of special status. This means that they either are the only autonomous units (e.g. the Åland Islands) or they enjoy a higher degree of self-government than other entities (e.g. Jammu and Kashmir). TA in this narrow sense is inherently asymmetrical because it is often a solution, which is bilaterally negotiated by representatives of the central government and of the territory in question, and thus tailored to a specific case, in which diversity had become politically salient.

WHY self-government? The ultimate driver for institutionalizing TA is commonly cultural and/or territorial diversity. In the minority discourse, the emphasis is placed, quite understandably, on the first dimension. Such a focus on cultural diversity covers, indeed, most of the complex reality of TA arrangements concluded as a response to politically salient diversity. In practice, however, TA also includes cases, in which territorial diversity, most prominently the remoteness of an area, has acted as a key driver in conjunction with cultural diversity (e.g. Greenland) or even without it (e.g. Madeira).

WHO exercises self-government? In any event, even if politically salient cultural diversity is the raison d'être of many TA regimes, the subject of self-government is always the entire population of a territorial entity. This distinguishes TA fundamentally from non-territorial autonomy, whose subject is by definition, and by its very name, defined in a non-territorial way, i.e. according to the principle of personality or on a functional basis, as a group of people. That TA aims at self-government of the whole population of a territorial entity is overlooked when this tool is perceived as a means of empowering exclusively a culturally distinct national minority, which forms in this entity a regional majority. This perception negates the fact that self-governing territories are in many cases just as culturally diverse as the whole country and themselves characterized by the presence of "internal minorities" (e.g. Italian-speakers and Ladin-speakers in South Tyrol). The roots of this narrow view lie in a notion of historically justified "ownership" of the autonomous territory and, as a consequence, of territorially-based power by the regional majority. It is challenged by the opposite view that TA is to comprise mechanisms of sharing autonomous power between the regional majority and minorities.


Case studies

Jammu-Kashmir-flag.svg

Jammu and Kashmir

South Tyrol



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