Changing perceptions about sovereignty

ByUmair Jalali

Teaches in The Royal Colosseum and is an avid sports fan


March 20, 2023

Changing perceptions about sovereignty

Umair Jalali talks about Changing perceptions about sovereignty

Though Changing perceptions about sovereignty conventional wisdom still emphasizes the traditional concept of sovereignty that has been the central principle of the formation and sustenance of nation-state yet there are more than one reason to review this concept. Many skeptics therefore point out the functional arrangements underpinning traditional concept of sovereignty have considerably diluted and it has taken a new shape and form. Owing to the rigours of evolution it is simply not possible that this age-old concept would not further change. Gaining currency since the 17th century this concept became the closest there is to a universal principle promoting order in the world. The issue however was that the concept faced was that sovereignty was closely tied to the supremacy of governmental authority within a country’s given borders. This applied to all who live or happen to be present there regardless of the form of government. Individuals and other entities such as corporations have rights, but on most issues they must respect the ultimate authority of the national government and those who act in its name unless the constitution or law of the country provides otherwise. The specifics are for the government and in some cases people of particular countries to decide.

Since its inception sovereignty also has an international dimension and unlike the domestic definition, sovereignty in the international context connotes equality. All countries, no matter what their size or population or power or wealth, are equal in their rights, above all in the notion that their borders are to be respected by other states. Noninterference in the internal affairs of another country is a hallmark of sovereignty and the current world order. A political entity qualifies as a sovereign country if it possesses supreme political authority and a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within its borders. In other words, it can enforce its laws and punish those who break them and its citizens recognise the government’s authority to do so.

The government is supposed to be able to control its borders and regulate all that enters and leaves its territory, from goods to people. In return, a country has the ability to adopt the domestic policies of its choosing. Finally, a country is one recognised by its peers, that is, other sovereign countries. Normally, this recognition manifests itself in the establishment of embassies, the exchange of ambassadors, and diplomatic interactions such as concluding treaties. The UN General Assembly is composed only of entities, that is to say countries that meet or at their time of entry were thought to meet these criteria.
Skeptics however point out that sovereignty is widely considered near but not quite absolute. An ongoing debate is tied to the question of whether there ought to be legitimate grounds for intervening including with military force in the internal affairs of other countries to prevent genocide, defined as the purposeful destruction of a group of people based on their race, religion, ethnicity, or national identity. Central to this debate is whether order ought to reflect more than relations between countries and take into account what goes on within them.

Keeping in view the evolving concept of sovereignty, in recent years, there has been an effort to rebalance the rights of the state and the rights of the individual away from the former and toward the latter. Under this line of thinking, sovereignty is something of a contract between a government and both its citizens and other governments, and when a government is unable or unwilling to live up to its responsibilities, it forfeits some of the rights that normally come with being sovereign. One of these rights is the presumption of noninterference and a free hand for it to do what it wants at home.

One of a crucial alteration that occurred in the conceptual framework of sovereignty was the adoption of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine (commonly referred to as R2P), which in principle provides a basis for interventions by other countries or regional or global organisations, be it with words, sanctions, or even military force in situations in which a government carries out or fails to prevent mass atrocities against people living in its territory. As a matter of fact however, in practice, the R2P doctrine has not fared well as several governments particularly China and Russia came to view the doctrine with suspicion when what began as a humanitarian effort to deter attacks against civilians morphed into an effort to oust the ruling regime and give its example as American intervention in Libya.

It also turns out that R2P can be extraordinarily difficult and costly to carry out, something that helps to explain why the world did little when some 500,000 Syrians lost their lives and a majority of the population was made homeless because of a conflict in Syria that its government has played a central role in. There is also the reality that many governments, including China, Russia, and India, tend to resist any exception to the notion of absolute sovereignty out of concern that a precedent could be established that might be used to constrain what it is they do or would like to do within their own borders.

In addition, when a government allows a terrorist group to operate freely in its territory, it cannot expect its borders to be respected by actual or would-be victims of that terrorism. This was the case with the Taliban-led Afghan government, which saw its sovereign rights violated after it allowed al-Qaeda to use Afghanistan as a base from which to carry out the 11 September, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States. Similarly, when one country violates the sovereignty of another country directly, be it with military force or cyber-attacks, it legitimises retaliation against it either in kind or with other means chosen by the victim.

On the one hand, its belief in sovereignty is near absolute lest others interfere with what goes on politically in Russia. At the same time, Russia has started a war in Ukraine after seizing Crimea and undermining the government’s authority in other parts of the country. What all this reveals is that respect for even the most basic of international rules is far from universal. It should be added that sovereignty can also be voluntarily constrained or even ceded or delegated. In this respect the example cited is that what countries do inside the European Union where they pool their sovereignty allowing the EU’s various organs to make decisions that affect them.

In all such cases, governments do so out of the belief that on balance their interests are better served by engaging in collective decision making even if occasionally decisions are made that they disagree with. What is critical in all these cases is that the transfer of sovereignty is partial and voluntary and can be rescinded at any time. Sovereign states and their governments are not the only pieces on the chessboard in the international system as there are also international corporations and nongovernmental organisations operating within the borders of a state exercising a good deal of functional autonomy. The reality is that while countries usually wield more power and influence than other actors, they are not alone in their ability to do so, and they are not always in a position to prevent others from asserting themselves. TW


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