What is Sovereignty?
IT was a warm evening last summer in downtown Quebec City. Sidewalk cafes overflowed and crowds gathered around open-air performers in the central square. "Do you want me to swallow this fire-stick?" one juggler shouted in bad French to stir the enthusiasm of his French-speaking crowd. "Oui," they shouted - Yes! "Is the reason you want me to because I'm an English-Canadian?" Even louder, with roars of laughter Oui!" It's good that Canadians were still laughing about the ethnic-linguistic dispute threatening Canada's unity. Elsewhere in the world, the questioning of central state authority by groups outside the mainstream has been far less humorous. The most tragic of such challenges were the rebellions inside Iraq last March.
All over the globe, people are questioning the definition of national sovereignty. Time was, if you knew the borders of any state, you could project a kind of cone inward to the center of the earth and out to the edge of the universe, assured that all the people and resources in that area came under the authority of the state's "sovereign" government.
"Possessed of supreme power," my dictionary says for sovereign. "Unlimited in extent; absolute."
But life ain't like that these days. Technology has put satellites in everyone's airspace, and political leaders have created supranational rules with supranational enforcement mechanisms. Even the United States has foreign satellites circling overhead while its government is constrained by international agreements from carrying out many of the actions of the traditional sovereign state. If state sovereignty is nowhere absolute, how can we redefine intergroup relations? This is one of the most pressing c
hallenges faced by a world recently freed from the constraints of a cold war. It is a challenge for all nations.
THE nature of state sovereignty has been questioned with respect to the resettling of Iraq's fleeing Kurds. The British proposed that coalition forces in Turkey act to ensure the Kurds' safe return, regardless of the preference of Iraq's "sovereign" government. The United Nations took a different tack, opening negotiations with the Iraqi government. President Bush followed the British plan, but has stressed that he wants to hand over the operation to the UN as soon as possible.
The UN is a truly remarkable organization. It is the best basis we have for building a just and secure international order for the future. But it is a united nations organization, not a united peoples organization. It deals first and foremost with the governments of nation-states, not their peoples. Article 2(7) of its charter states that nothing in the charter "shall authorize the UN to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state Iraq has quoted the article i
n resisting UN efforts to intervene in the government's relations with the Kurds.
The article also states that the non-intervention principle "shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII" of the charter, which relates to threats to international peace. In March, the Security Council passed a resolution stating that the flood of refugees across Iraq's land borders posed just such a threat. In the view of Sir Anthony Parsons, a former British ambassador to the United Nations, the possible conflict between these two UN principles should be resolved in f a
vor of active UN intervention to resettle the Kurds. The US government clearly agrees.
In Iraq, in Quebec, and in Central Europe, ethnic groups have started to look for ways to relate to one another on the basis of new definitions of sovereignty. The tendency is to split existing states into smaller units. In Western Europe, however, older nation-states are pooling their sovereignty into something larger and more powerful. How are we to make sense of these contradictory trends?
One helpful step is to get away from the idea that sovereignty is anywhere absolute. Another is to strengthen the ability of supranational groups like the UN or the Organization of American States to deal with intragroup as well as interstate conflicts. It seems like a tough act to juggle. But it's a more engaging challenge for future years than juggling the nuclear threats and counter-threats that dominated the cold war.