Is too much sovereignty a bad thing?

Written by M. Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies

Published on February 28, 2011 with No Comments

…Take Libya, for Example

The concept of sovereignty has been around for centuries and has taken twists and turns in its meaning. But today I believe it is defined most plainly as ultimate decision-making power, political “overness” or control of everything with a country’s borders. Sovereignty, in different places at different times, has rested with absolute rulers, constitutional monarchs, legislatures or the people (at least in theory). Sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, the ‘rule of thumb’ of a definition for sovereignty is that decision-making authority within a defined political realm is free from outside interference.


In my mind, sovereignty has been given a free ride as a concept. It is on the order of the sacrosanct, like religious leaders and motherhood and national flags, things or ideas that are generally considered off limits for open, honest, and frank discussion or criticism. To question sovereignty in one’s own country is to be perceived as unpatriotic. To question the sovereignty of another country is to be imperialistic or meddling, depending on motivation. In fact, recognition and acceptance of the sovereignty of other nation-states is a cornerstone of the UN Charter. “To each his/her own” is the defining rule. Without the cornerstone of sovereignty, there would be no internationally chartered authority, even though that same cornerstone also ensures that a government can do most anything it wants within its own borders, even imprison its people (Myanmar), starve its people (North Korea), cheat its people (Congo, Egypt and a long list of countries—developed and developing—much too long to put here) or rule through fear of death or imprisonment (Iraq, Iran, Libya, Zimbabwe—again, the list goes on and on). We read about such examples from around the world in the news every day, especially recently.

Only a few weeks ago, the government of Tunisia, neglecting cries for reforms from its citizenry, was toppled. Then fell Mubarak in Egypt. Yemen and Oman are now under pressure, and today the bloodiest uprising is ongoing in the terrible and deteriorating situation in Libya. Several leaders in other countries in North Africa and in the Middle East are now seeking reforms that have been long desired, long neglected, and long in coming. In hopes of saving their regimes, reforms are being discussed and/or implemented at lightening speed in places like Saudi Arabia, where the absolute monarch has offered his subjects a reform carrot of $35 billion for various public benefits, including housing, unemployment benefits, and scholarships, though he has as yet not responded publicly to today’s signed call by over one hundred Saudi intellectuals for establishment of a constitutional monarchy in the kingdom. Indeed, it is already too late for some governments but maybe not so for others.

Regimes (not necessarily governments!) in North Africa and the Middle East are falling swiftly now, after most of their respective leaders (autocrats and in some cases tyrants) had been in power for 20, 30 or even 40 years. These leaders have had a good run at power and corruption. To read the news you’d think that vitriol against them from outside their national borders had been ongoing during their rule, but, sadly, that is not the case. Such “bad” leaders have mostly been tolerated for a range of reasons—as political allies, as military allies, as fellow “autocrats”, as trade partners—by the enlightened, developed states of the international community. But is Qaddafi any worse today than he was three or five years ago? Was Mubarek less of a leader with a lead fist a few years ago than he was recently? No! The fact is that silence toward these autocrats and tyrants by the international community of nations was often justified in the name of sovereign rights—what happens in a country is no one’s responsibility but the rulers of that country. There have been exceptions, of course, like when a chronically bad situation becomes really ugly (or widely reported, except for the Congo) and takes on the appearance of genocide (e.g. Serbia, Rwanda). But even in those situations the international community was slow to respond because of various factors not the least important of which was the claim of sovereignty by the offending national government.

Historically, the cry of national sovereignty has kept humanitarian efforts at bay. Even now, as the situation in Libya deteriorates to a blood-letting, European and other governments are afraid to agree to any action to protect Libyans: they protect their own nationals on Libyan territory but it is left to the Libyans (or Egyptians, or Yemeni or Syrians or Saudis or . . .) to rid themselves of their leaders. Indeed, only now that revolution has sprung internally do we hear other governments complain publically of bad rule in Libya or Egypt or Yemen or . . . Why is that? Silence for decades but vocal for only the last month or so against tyrants?

The reality is that sovereignty is not an absolute truth; it is a subjective concept opportunistically applied or discarded by other countries to suit their own agendas of sovereignty. It is a “political invention” to maintain power internally without interference from outside forces. Most countries now verbally attack the Libyan regime of Qaddafi and his sons in order, most likely, to preserve not the wellbeing of the Libyan people but an uninterrupted flow of oil or of commerce to their own industries.


In contending with the invention of sovereignty, we as citizens not only of nations but also of an imperiled earth must recognize that we have a choice as to how rigidly we define the boundaries of a sovereign state. On one hand, to protect governments and to allow them to have their way (for good or ill) with their citizens, the political invention of sovereignty must be protected. On the other hand, to protect those very same citizens from abuses by their governments, the political invention of sovereignty must be usurped for a greater good in the service of human wellbeing regardless of what side of a political border or jurisdiction those citizens happen to have been born on.

The rights of sovereigns must have limits. Let’s start anew by assisting the Libyan people in their liberation from Qaddafi and his hired-gun mercenaries.

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