A deeper redefining of sovereignty

In Kosovo, the Belgrade government still formally has it. In East

Timor, the Indonesian government never did. In Rwanda, the genocidal former government dominated by Hutus had it. In the West Bank and Gaza, the Israelis don't.

What is this mysterious "it"? The power of state sovereignty, a power that has dominated global affairs for 350 years.

It is also a power that, as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan admitted in a recent essay in The Economist, "in its most basic sense, is being redefined."

The name of this concept harks back to a time when European sovereigns fought each other for the right to exercise monopolistic control over the lands that each claimed. In 1648, after 30 years of war, they finally had enough. In the Treaty of Westphalia they agreed, but without reference to the peoples under their control, to recognize each other's "sovereignty" over areas they then controlled. The concept of state sovereignty was born. When the rival European powers later spread their armies, their rule, and their concepts around the world, they took the idea of nation-state sovereignty with them. There is a reason today's United "Nations" is called that, rather than the United "Peoples." In all UN decisionmaking, national governments hold a monopoly of power! Hard luck if you're the member of an oppressed group excluded from influence in your country's national government: You have no UN vote.

So it was brave of Mr. Annan - who owes his position to nation-state diplomats, not popular mandate - to point to the shortcomings of the system. He said timely and important things: "States are now widely understood to be instruments at the service of their peoples, and not vice versa. At the same time ... the fundamental freedom of each individual, enshrined in the charter of the UN and subsequent international treaties, has been enhanced by a renewed and spreading consciousness of individual rights."

He pointed out, rightly, that the dilemmas raised by the state-sovereignty question are not easy to resolve. Many in the developing world see the sovereignty of their states as helping defend their communities against much more powerful external interests. And as in Westphalia-era Europe, the imposition of some order, even imperfectly exercised, can be seen as preferable to continuing bloodshed and anarchy. Only people in rich Western states that deliver a high degree of public security are ever heard arguing that states have no relevance at all in the modern world.

Annan was right to urge that any new guidelines for humanitarian intervention be designed in a universal manner, and that the international commitment to peace must be just as strong as to war. He was also correct to stress that effective "intervention" comes in many forms, beyond the purely military.

But if we want to build a truly peaceful and rights-respecting world, we also need to look at global governance. The monopoly national governments hold on decisions made by the UN and related bodies needs to be broken by global "people power." Why not think of the present UN governing bodies as constituting a future global "senate," while the people of the world also vote for direct representatives in a democratic, globe-wide "parliament of the peoples"? If we're serious about global democracy, democratizing the global system must be an important part of that.

It's not unworkable. India just completed the latest in the series of national elections that has kept it basically democratic since 1949 - a global election would only be six times as big.

Citizens in Western Europe have been voting in Europe-wide elections for more than a decade. Global direct-elections are doable, and would open a new era of transnational politics. Presently disenfranchised peoples like the Kosovars or Kurds, or interest groups like "green coalitions," could finally have a say in world affairs. A new global politics of coalitions and shared interests would start, as in Europe, to crisscross national boundaries.

So yes, Mr. Annan, let's take up your timely suggestions for reframing questions of sovereignty and humanitarian intervention. But let's inject some direct democracy into the world organization itself.

*Helena Cobban, who writes from Charlottesville, Va., is author of the forthcoming 'The Moral Architecture of World Peace.' (University Press of Virginia).

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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