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The Monitor's View

An African lens on breaking sovereignty

Foreign intervention in Africa has become almost a norm, with the Central African Republic as the latest example. The world must ask how much it should honor individual rights over national sovereignty.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / October 10, 2013

Civilians who fled attacks by rebels seek refuge in a church yard in Bossangoa, Central African Republic. The rebels have been blamed for abuses including widespread looting, killings, rape, and conscription of child soldiers.

AP Photo

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For those who track events in Africa, it has lately become more difficult to count the times that forces of one country have entered another. Last weekend, for example, US Navy SEALs raided Libya and Somalia. French troops swept into Mali earlier this year. Rwandan soldiers often chase rebels in Congo. Many nations are going after Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa.

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Then there are the troops of the African Union or United Nations currently involved in several troubled nations on the continent. One nation is the Central African Republic, a mineral-rich country of some 5 million people that has been disintegrating into chaos ever since a coup in March.

On Thursday, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution to help end widespread violence there by supporting the African Union in sending more troops and possibly converting those forces into UN peacekeepers next month. The country already has a few hundred French soldiers near the main airport and some forces sent by neighboring states.

Foreign intervention in another country, whether approved or not, can often break a long-held rule about national sovereignty, or the collective self-determination of a people. In Africa, where most borders date back to colonial days and don’t follow ethnic demographics, the sovereign concept is still a work in progress.

The reasons are many. Civil wars spill over borders. Islamic militants seek a Muslim holy land across state boundaries. A humanitarian crisis leads to intervention by European or American forces. Or a terrorist group uses a weakened state as a launching pad for attacks.

The Central African Republic illustrates Africa’s sovereignty problem. Acute poverty and Muslim-Christian tensions have led to the country’s “Somalization,” as French President François Hollande calls it. But in addition, rebel groups have little regard for individual sovereignty, or a person’s right to be free, which is the very origin and basis of national sovereignty.

When a government, or a lack of government, allows the kind of mass killing as witnessed in the Central African Republic, then other countries must ask if they should put right the principle of individual sovereignty that holds a society together and thus temporarily disregard national sovereignty.

The UN and others often juggle the difficult tug between honoring universal human rights and state boundaries. “National sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your people,” President Obama said last year after the United States had joined the 2011 attack on Libya to prevent a massacre.

Global trends are driving the interdependence of people across borders while many authoritarian states, especially Russia, insist on respecting sovereignty even in cases such as Syria where a dictator is killing innocent people.

Smaller, poorer countries like the Central African Republic deserve more attention simply because the horrific conditions there represent the need for a better global understanding on the balance between individual and state sovereignty.

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