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The Limits of Sovereignty

Jul 22, 2008
Just how sovereign is a “sovereign” nation? How far can it go in allowing—or colluding in—the exploition and brutalization of its people before intervention is justified, or even required, by outside powers? This is a question that has been pondered for a long while. In 1948, the U.N. General Assembly ratified the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide1, which is one of the few instances where the international community has placed formal limits on state sovereignty.

Although this resolution is only one among many others which sustain the sovereignty of nations against outside interference, the tide is beginning to turn, and it is becoming an increasingly acceptable stance that national sovereignty involves responsibilities as well as rights.

The House of Commons Library, the British equivalent of the U.S.’s Congressional Research Service, has produced an admirable paper entitled “Reinventing Humanitarian Intervention: Two Cheers for the Responsibility to Protect?” The paper summarizes the historic debate on national sovereignty, and shows how the crises in the 1990s in Somalia, Rwanda, and Kosovo led to the development of the “Responsibility to Protect (R2P)” doctrine.

For an old unreconstructed one-worlder like myself, comments like the following are music to my ears. They come from members of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), whose work led to the R2P document:

  • “We sought to turn the whole weary debate about the right to intervene on its head, and to re-characterise it not as an argument about the ‘right’ of state[s] to anything, but rather about their ‘responsibility’....”2
  • “If sovereignty becomes an obstacle to the realisation of freedom, then it can, should and must be discarded.”3
The ICISS’s three-prong doctrine included the responsibility of international communities to prevent, to react, and to rebuild in instances where sovereign nations are unwilling or unable to protect their citizens. This doctrine, somewhat watered down, was incorporated into the Outcome Document of the 2005 U.N. World Summit—a miracle of negotiation considering the climate of multilateral hostilities engendered by the U.S.’s essentially unilateral invasion of Iraq. R2P now awaits an international incident which will test its effectiveness. Why the situation in Darfur hasn’t brought it to the fore—though many have argued that it should4,5— is a mystery to me.

However, with R2P now officially a part of United Nations policy, we may be on the road—finally, actually, effectively, and multilaterally—to becoming our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

1General Assembly Resolution 260 A (III), 9 December 1948
2Gareth Evans, Co-Chair, ICISS
3Ramesh Thakur, Member, ICISS
4“The Responsibility to Protect Darfur,” by William G. O'Neill, The Christian Science Monitor, September 28, 2008 (Accessed July 19, 2008)
5Crisis in Darfur, from the Responsibility to Protect web page, undated (Accessed July 19, 2008)
tags: Politics | Human Rights

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