Concept of State Sovereignty

Question 8 (a): Describe the concept of state sovereignty, then discuss its limits in light of the growth of international law and world public opinion as shaped by “the CNN factor” (24 hour news coverage).

Michael Herleth
Tutor: Matt
Tutorial: Wednesday 2-3
Describe the concept of state sovereignty, then discuss its limits in light of the growth of international law and world public opinion as shaped by “the CNN factor” (24 hour news coverage).

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For some centuries now, international society has been founded on the principle of sovereignty. This principle defends that the state has the right to be the master of what goes on in its territory, and international relations are relations between sovereign states, each one of which has certain rights and obligations derived from the very fact of statehood. However with the increase in numbers of multinational corporations, an augmenting expectation of human rights internationally, the formation of collective organizations such as the UN and NATO, and the growing importance of world public opinion and international law, the sovereignty of states is increasingly at risk and becoming limited as an emergency safeguard for all states equally.
The concept of sovereignty, one of the most controversial ideas in political science and international law, is closely related to the difficult concepts of state and government, of independence and democracy. In the past sovereign states have claimed the right to be judges in their own controversies, to enforce by war their own conception of their rights, to treat their own citizens in any way that suited them, and to regulate their economic life with complete disregard for possible repercussions in other states. This concept of absolute, unlimited sovereignty did not last long, either domestically or internationally. The growth of the democratic form of government imposed important limitations upon the power of the sovereign and of the ruling classes. The increase in the interdependence of states restricted the principle that might is right in international affairs. The peoples of the world have recognized that there can be no peace without law and that there can be no law without some limitations on sovereignty. They have started, therefore, to pool their sovereignties to the extent needed to maintain peace, and sovereignty is being increasingly exercised on behalf of the peoples of the world not only by national governments but also by organs of the world community.

State sovereignty has been and continues to be limited from many different directions. International law has been the greatest restricting factor in the light of state sovereignty. In the past law is what the sovereign commanded, and it could not limit his power; sovereign power was as absolute as men could make it. In the international sphere this condition led to a perpetual state of war, one sovereign trying to impose his will by force on all other sovereigns. However with the establishment of international organizations and collective intervention during the 20th century, primarily for peace-keeping purposes, (the United Nations being the largest thereof), we saw important restrictions on the freedom of action of states starting to appear, effectively controlling the situation and setting a base for further laws to build upon. In consequence of such developments, sovereignty ceased to be considered as synonymous with unrestricted power. States have accepted a considerable body of law limiting their sovereign right of acting as they please. Those restrictions on sovereignty are usually explained as deriving from consent, but it can be easily demonstrated that in some cases states have been considered as bound by certain rules of international law despite the lack of satisfactory proof that these rules were expressly or implicitly accepted by them. On the other hand, new rules cannot ordinarily be imposed upon a state, without its consent, by the will of other states. In this way a balance has been achieved between the needs of the international society and the desire of states to protect their sovereignty to the maximum possible extent.
World pubic opinion as shaped by 24-hour news coverage, such as the CNN, has effected state sovereignty almost as heavily as international law. With the adoption of the United Nations Charter in 1945, international law has developed a body of rules on human rights, which forbid states to ill-treat individuals, including their own nationals. This body of rules has acted as a minimum level for humanitarian standards in all states. In turn, as soon as the humanitarian standards in a state fall below the minimum level projected by the United Nations Charter, it risks becoming a focus point of news media, such as the CNN. The sovereignty of the state is then violated as other states apply diplomatic, economic or military pressure, in accordance with public opinion, thus limiting and influencing its future decisions and actions. In extreme cases intervention by other single states or other states collectively may be deemed necessary. This may be justified as:
It is often argued that forcible intervention by individual states may sometimes be the only way to prevent one state from ill-treating the nationals of another (or its own nationals), in view of the inability or unwillingness of the United Nations to prevent such ill-treatment.
Although it seems the United Nations is primarily concerned with upholding humanitarian standards, it also defends the sovereignty of states. Article 2 (4) of the United Nations Charter does require members of the United Nations to ‘refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations’. The world public does of course not only turn its head towards violations of human rights. Environmental, economic and military issues are also areas of much concern to the public. The mere fact that the world public has the influence it does on governments and leaders of states around the world, poses a threat to state sovereignty. With 24 hour news coverage of global events, each and every decision or action a state makes may be subject to criticism from the world public, thus restricting its right to do as it pleases, even within its own territory and therefore restricting it’s basic sovereignty.

It’s clear to see that the sovereignty of states is being constantly challenged. Over the years the concept of sovereignty has changed greatly, and this has affected all states, for better or for worse. International laws are continually being built upon to provide an acceptable balance between the sovereign equality and independence of states on the one hand and the reality of an interdependent world and international law commitment to human dignity on the other. As humanitarian standards continue to rise, we see the need for more effective international machinery for the protection of these human rights. However as the sovereignty of states remain on a slippery slope, humanitarian intervention remains an inadequate substitute for such machinery, and may even delay or discourage its establishment. While the doctrine of sovereignty has had an important impact on developments within states in the past, its greatest influence is now the relations between states. Even though it is continually being limited by international law and world public opinion, one can expect to be challenged to the find the balance; with state sovereignty on the one side and international law on the other, for many years to come.
-Bull, Hedley, Intervention in World Politics. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1985.

– Chafetz, G., and Spirtas, M., and Frankel, B., The Origins of National Interest. London, Frank Cass Publishers, 1999.

-Chambliss, William J., Power, Politics, and Crime. Oxford, Westview Press, 1999.
-Encyclopedia Britannica Article Page, Sovereignty and International Law.
-Hammond, Bray, Sovereignty and an Empty Purse. New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1970.

-Lillich, D., Humanitarian Intervention and the United Nations. United States, Rinehart and Winston Inc., 1983.
-Nordensteng, Kaarle and Schiller, Herbert I., National Sovereignty and International Communication. New Jersey, Ablex Publishing Co., 1979.

-Papp, Daniel S., Contemporary International Relations. United States, Macmillian Publishing Company, 1997.

-United nations Centre on Transnational Corporations, Transnational Corporations in World Development. New York, United Nations Publications, 1988.

-Vernon, Raymond, Sovereignty at Bay. New York, Basic Books Inc., 1971.

-Vincent, R. J., Nonintervention and International Order. New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1974.


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