The right of peoples to self-determination occupies a prominent position in a number of key international instruments, like the Human Rights Covenants and the United Nations Charter. Yet, despite this, many questions remain about the right in international law. This article is an analysis of the right which will look at its language in relation to its practical application. Its focus is on self-determination as a rhetoric, which, it is argued, is used to legitimize political activities by presenting those activities in terms of peoples and their self-realization. It will be further argued that as political rhetoric self-determination is most likely to be invoked in the institutions that direct and provide a focus for political life. This produces the paradox in the right. Although the rhetoric of self-determination suggests that peoples and their characteristics provide the basis for political institutions, the right, in fact, seems to be shaped in large part by those institutions. This, in turn, has important implications for how self-determination should be looked at in relation to other legal principles.