Have You Ever?

Imagine you just bought your own house. It’s all yours and you can do whatever you want in it without the interference of others. You can pick out the furniture, draw pictures on the walls, and even throw a big party with your friends. Your house, your rules.

Explanation

Other people cannot come into your house without your permission, or tell you what you can and can’t do inside. This power that you have over your property is very similar to the concept of state sovereignty in international relations. 

Definition of Sovereignty

Sovereignty is defined as the supreme authority within a territory. Sovereign states, or countries, are holders of sovereignty. Just like your neighbors cannot randomly enter your house, other countries cannot arbitrarily intrude in your country and meddle with its domestic affairs.

The History

Many political scientists trace the concept of sovereignty back to 1648 and the signing of a series of treaties known as Peace of Westphalia. This marked Europe’s transition from the Middle Ages, which saw ongoing conflicts between various powers, to the modern world of nation-states. Westphalia established the principle of non-interference within the borders in sovereign states from outside powers, thus alleviating certain conflicts. Sovereignty later became an international norm when the United Nations (UN) recognized it in the UN Charter in 1945 to create a stable international community.

How It Works

Sovereignty has three components: authority, supremacy, and territoriality. A sovereign state thus has supreme authority within their established territory. This authority can be derived from different sources of legitimacy. For example, the United States derives its authority from a constitution, whereas the Pope, who rules Vatican City, derives authority from a divine mandate. The state’s authority or power is considered supreme since its sovereignty overrides other authorities. For example, the Supreme Court of the United States can override local state laws by ruling them unconstitutional. Lastly, the territoriality aspect of the definition indicates the geographic scope of the authority. The borders of a sovereign state draw the lines of the national territory within which the authority applies. 

The definition also implies an external constraint on “outsiders” relative to the sovereign state, meaning that other sovereign states and forces may not interfere with the sovereign’s governance.

So What?

Despite its “supremacy,” sovereignty does have its limits. Globalization and the evolution of international institutions have challenged and redefined the absolute nature of sovereignty. For example, European Union (EU) member states have sovereignty in some matters but not others. They have their own governments, laws, and defenses. But, they are also subject to the EU law and share certain policies such as in trade and welfare. Nations may choose to sacrifice some sovereignty for the benefits that come with cooperation.

The international community has also agreed that sovereignty can be overruled in cases of human rights violations. When basic rights are violated, the United Nations and individual countries can use economic sanctions, mediation, and other measures to influence the offending governments. In extreme cases, the UN can authorize military intervention to prevent atrocities such as genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Court was also developed to hold accountable the perpetrators of these atrocity crimes. Sovereignty cannot be used to defend against or excuse excessively cruel, dehumanizing treatment of people.

As a basic principle, sovereignty has shaped the landscape of international relations in our modern world. Understanding the development of sovereignty, as well as its limits, can help us critically evaluate the principle and make sounder judgments on international relations.

    Learn More

    1. Bodin, J., 1992. On Sovereignty: Four Chapters From Six Books of the Commonwealth, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    2. Hinsley, F. H., 1986. Sovereignty, second edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    3. Spruyt, H., 1994. The Sovereign State and Its Competitors, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
    4. Reisman, W., 1990. Sovereignty and Human Rights in Contemporary International Law. The American Journal of International Law, 84(4), 866-876.

    Think Further

    1. Do you think sovereignty should be absolute? If not, what other limitations would you put on sovereignty?
    2. Do you think military interventions to protect human rights are justified? Why or why not?
    3. Do you think state sovereignty protects or restricts individual freedom of citizens?

     

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