The author seeks to analyze in what ways international law can justify or limit ethnicity-based non-territorial autonomy (NTA). NTA serves as a category of practice lacking a uniform understanding. NTA has gained two basic interpretations: as a collective entitlement to promote ethnicity, language and culture and as the idea of granting self-governing organisations certain public functions and resources. Some ‘soft law’ provisions explicitly employ the notion of non-territorial autonomy or self-administration; they are declaratory and far from being instrumentalised. Concurrently, there are more concrete and instrumental provisions as well as case-law which fit into the second understanding of NTA; but these approaches more restrictive than of the first cluster. This gap can be explained in terms of differences between symbolic and instrumental policies, through taking into account the ideological function of international law, or the function of generating non-controversial macro-narratives.