The Definition of Sovereignty

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However, this conception is far from being consensual in XXI century. Failed, inadequate, incompetent, or abusive national authority structures have sabotaged the economic well being, violated the basic human rights, and undermined the physical security of their populations. That’s why the notion of sovereignty gradually moves from the classical conception of being absolute to relative: sometimes contingent, sometimes conditional and other times shared. This paper intents to consider modern sovereignty concepts suggested in order to deal with failed states.



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Sovereignty in foreign relations has been historically understood as non-intervention. However, this conception is far from being consensual in XXI century. Failed, inadequate, incompetent, or abusive national authority structures have sabotaged the economic well being, violated the basic human rights, and undermined the physical security of their populations. That’s why the notion of sovereignty gradually moves from the classical conception of being absolute to relative: sometimes contingent, sometimes conditional and other times shared. This paper intents to consider modern sovereignty concepts suggested in order to deal with failed states.


1. The Definition of Sovereignty

Sovereignty, though its meanings have varied across history, also has a core meaning, supreme authority within a territory. It is a modern notion of political authority. Retrospective manifestations of sovereignty are almost always specific instances of this general definition. Historical variants can be understood along three dimensions — the holder of sovereignty, the absoluteness of sovereignty, and the internal and external dimensions of sovereignty. The state is the political institution in which sovereignty is embodied. An assemblage of states forms a sovereign states system.

Each component of the above definition highlights an important aspect of the concept. First, a holder of sovereignty possesses authority. A holder of sovereignty derives authority from some mutually acknowledged source of legitimacy — natural law, a divine mandate, hereditary law, a constitution, even international law. In the contemporary era, some body of law is ubiquitously the source of sovereignty. But if sovereignty is a matter of authority, it is not a matter of mere authority, but of supreme authority. The holder of sovereignty is superior to all authorities under its purview.

Another key facet of sovereignty is territoriality, also a feature of political authority in modernity. Territoriality is a principle by which members of a community are to be defined. It specifies that their membership derives from their residence within borders. The borders of a sovereign state may not at all circumscribe a “people” or a “nation,” and may in fact encompass several of these identities, as national self-determination and irredentist movements make evident. It is rather by simple virtue of their location within geographic borders that people belong to a state and fall under the authority of its ruler. It is within a geographic territory that modern sovereigns are supremely authoritative.

Sovereignty can also be absolute or non-absolute. It is possible for an authority to be sovereign over some matters within a territory, but not all. For example, today many European Union (EU) member states exhibit non-absoluteness. They are sovereign in governing defence, but not in governing their currencies, trade policies, and many social welfare policies, which they administer in cooperation with EU authorities as set forth in EU law.

A final pair of adjectives that define sovereignty is “internal” and “external.” Sovereign authority is exercised within borders, but also, by definition, with respect to outsiders, who may not interfere with the sovereign's governance. The state has been the chief holder of external sovereignty since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, after which interference in other states’ governing prerogatives became illegitimate. The concept of sovereignty in international law most often connotes external sovereignty. It is also external sovereignty that establishes the basic condition of international relations — anarchy, meaning the lack of a higher authority that makes claims on lower authorities. An assemblage of states, both internally and externally sovereign, makes up an international system, where sovereign entities ally, trade, make war, and make peace.

Supreme authority with a territory — within this definition, sovereignty can then be understood more precisely only through its history. This history of sovereignty can be understood through two broad movements, manifested in both practical institutions and political thought. The first is the development of a system of sovereign states, culminating at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Contemporaneously, sovereignty became prominent in political thought through the writings of Machiavelli, Luther, Bodin, and Hobbes. The second movement is the circumscription of the sovereign state, which began in practice after World War II and has since continued through European integration and the growth and strengthening of laws and practices to protect human rights.

It was at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that Europe consolidated its long transition from the Middle Ages to a world of sovereign states. In 1555, a system of sovereign states gained important ground in the Peace of Augsburg, whose formula cuius regio, eius religio, allowed German princes to enforce their own faith within their territory. But Augsburg was unstable. Manifold contests over the settlement's provisions resulted in constant wars, culminating finally in the Thirty Years War, which did not end until 1648, at the Peace of Westphalia. After decades of armed contestation, the design of the Peace of Augsburg was finally consolidated, not in the exact form of 1555, but effectively establishing the authority of princes and kings over religion

What features of Westphalia make it the origin of the sovereign states system? First, states emerged as virtually the sole form of substantive constitutional authority in Europe, their authority no longer seriously challenged by the Holy Roman Empire. Second, Westphalia brought an end to intervention in matters of religion, up to then the most commonly practiced abridgement of sovereign prerogatives. The sovereign states system that came to dominate Europe at Westphalia spread worldwide over the next three centuries, culminating in the decline of the European colonial empires in the mid-20th century, when the state became the only form of polity ever to cover the entire land surface of the globe. Today, norms of sovereignty are enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, whose article 2(4) prohibits attacks on “political independence and territorial integrity,” and whose Article 2(7) sharply restricts intervention.

It was indeed after the World War II that meaningful legal and institutional circumscriptions of sovereignty in fact arose, many of which have come to abridge the rights of sovereign states quite significantly. The two most prominent curtailments are conventions on human rights and European integration. It was in 1948 that the vast majority of states signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, committing themselves to respect over 30 separate rights for individuals. Over decades, these human rights would come to enjoy ever stronger legal status. Only a practice of human rights backed up by military enforcement or robust judicial procedures would circumscribe sovereignty in a serious way. Progress in this direction began to occur after the Cold War through a historic revision of the Peace of Westphalia, one that curtails a norm strongly advanced by its treaties — non-intervention. In a series of several episodes beginning in 1990, the United Nations or another international organization has endorsed a political action, usually involving military force that the broad consensus of states would have previously regarded as illegitimate interference in internal affairs. The episodes have involved the approval of military operations to remedy an injustice within the boundaries of a state or the outside administration of domestic matters like police operations. They have occurred in Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, Cambodia, Liberia, and elsewhere.

An explicit call to revise the concept of sovereignty so as to allow for internationally sanctioned intervention arose with «The Responsibility to Protect», a document written and produced in 2001 by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, a commission that the Government of Canada convened at the behest of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. The document proposes a strong revision of the classical conception by which sovereignty involves a “responsibility to protect” on the part of a state towards its own citizens, a responsibility that outsiders may assume when a state perpetrates massive injustice or cannot protect its own citizens. «Responsibility to Protect» has garnered wide international attention and serves as a manifesto for a concept of sovereignty that is non-absolute and conditional upon outside obligations.

"Sovereignty as a responsibility" requires that states provide the appropriate standard of political goods and services to ensure the protection and well-being of their citizens. If they refuse assistance there is a responsibility by the international community to react. This creates a dual characteristic to sovereignty; an internal component, which relates to the state and its relationship to its people, and an external component, which manages the relationships between, states. There are many other concepts of sovereignty between these two extremes. Robert Jackson refers to positive and negative sovereignty and the concept of "quasi-states". That is, states that lack the capacity to support themselves without outside assistance, or to contribute to the international order but who are legally recognised through membership of the United Nations. Stephen Krasner argues that the Westphalian model of sovereignty based on the principles of autonomy and territory, has never been an accurate description of many of the entities called states, since breaches of the model have been an enduring characteristic of the international environment because there is nothing to prevent them.

2. A New Approach to the Understanding of State Sovereignty.

2.1 Why Do States Fall

As it has already been described above, since its implementation, the concept of state sovereignty has undergone a series of fundamental shifts. At present time many political scientists argue about erosion of state sovereignty in general as well as faltering of conventional sovereignty in many modern states and moves in sovereignty paradigm from absoluteness to relativity.

Stephen D. Krasner in his “New Institutions for Collapsed and Failing States” suggests three components of conventional sovereignty: domestic sovereignty, Westphalian/Vatellian sovereignty and international legal sovereignty. In the ideal sovereign state system they are mutually supportive, but in the contemporary world there is a great number of states where the domestic sovereignty has faltered enormously, but they still enjoy two other types of sovereignty. According to S.D. Krasner, “the largest number of poorly governed states is found on the continent of Africa.”1 If to compare the history of Western Europe and the history of former European colonies, we can understand why many post–colonial countries fail to retain the state sovereignty. In his work “Institutions” Douglass C. North, basing on the neoclassic exchange theory describes historical process of forming states in West Europe, and at the same time explores how the necessary supporting institutions were developing. As stated by North: “long distance trade in early modern Europe from the XI to XVI centuries was a story of sequentially more complex organizations that eventually led to the rise of western world.”2  C. Tilly claims in his “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime”, that “war making, extraction and capital accumulation interacted to shape European state making.”3

However North and Tilly researched the formation and evolution of states from different angles, they both agreed that for successful development of a state it was necessary to create effective legal structures, juridical system and other institutions that on the one hand helped the rulers to extract maximum revenue, lower the transaction costs, and provide protection to their subjects, and on the other hand constrained them “making vulnerable to courts, to assemblies, to withdrawal of credit services, and expertise”4. The economies of scale associated with devising a system of law, justice and defence are the basic underlying source of civilization.5

North and Tilly both stressed out that main functions of sovereign states were extraction and allocation of recourses in a form of order as well as protection through monopolization of the means of coercion. The extension of the Europe–based state–making process to the rest of the world, however, didn’t result in the creation of states in the strict European image. 6 Regarding to European colonies, yet they had different legal status, but the officials from mother countries governed and controlled all of them. After decolonization of Africa the former colonies just obtained legal sovereignty. They were left with the military organization inherited from metropole but without same internal forging mutual constraints between rulers and ruled.7 It is little surprise that seizure of power by greedy managers of military organizations occurred in many of the ex-colonial states. Given that some of those states also have valuable natural recourses deposits, they became a slice of pie for governors who didn’t care about the state polities and human rights of their citizens, but were only aimed at extracting recourses from disordered society. This led to four kinds of political crisis to happen: revolutionary war, ethnic war, “adverse regime change” or genocide.8


2.2 The Definition of Failed State

Only a few of the world's states can be described as totally failed or collapsed, but there are many dozens more that are weak and possible candidates for complete failure. They generally share some of the following negative characteristics: a rise in criminal and political violence; a loss of control over their borders; ethnic, religious, linguistic or cultural tensions or hostilities; poor communications and transport infrastructure; a weak economy and declining levels of GDP per capita; high levels of corruption; a weak health system with high levels of infant mortality and low levels of life expectancy; limited education opportunities; and a degraded environment.

The State Failure Task Force operationalized state failure as one of four kinds of internal political crisis: revolutionary war, ethnic war, “adverse” regime change, and genocide. However, what is required to estimate state condition is a model based on quantitatively based indicators that enable states to be classified strong, weak, or failed and ranked on a continuum of failure. Although indicators of state failure are often underdeveloped and unreliable in weak or failed states, D. Potter9 suggests that it is possible to develop a model utilising indicators grouped under the following classifications: Governance, Corruption, Economic, and Social Wellbeing. It could be contended that these concepts of responsibilities are essentially western in origin and a few states may argue that they are not applicable to their situation. Moreover, most of indicators might be measured using official and clear statistics provided by World Bank and other IGO.

The World Bank has defined Governance as the exercise of authority through formal and informal traditions and institutions for the common good, thus encompassing:

  • the process of selecting, monitoring, and replacing governments;
  • the capacity to formulate and implement sound policies and deliver public services;
  • the respect of the citizens and the state for the institutions that govern economic and social interactions among them.10

Corruption is commonly defined as the abuse of public office for private gain.20 Although the World Bank has included corruption in its components for measurement and analysis of governance, it is considered so important in analysing failed and weak states that it is included as a separate dimension for the purposes of the given model. Transparency International publishes an annual Corruption Perception Index (CPI) which is a composite index that incorporates data from seventeen different sources in 2003: the World Economic Forum, the World Business Environment Survey of the World Bank, the Institute of Management Development (in Lausanne), PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (in Hong Kong), the Economic Intelligence Unit, Columbia University, Gallop international on behalf of Transparency International and Freedom House's Nations in Transit, Information International from Beirut (Lebanon), the World Markets Research Centre (London), a multinational development bank, and the Business Environment and Enterprise Performance Survey of the EBRD and the World Bank.21 
The Economic indicators are selected to quantify openness of a state's economy, the ability of citizens to engage freely in income producing activities and the provision of a modern infrastructure which enable the state to compete on the globalised economy. The indicators are:

  • Fixed and Mobile Telephones (per1000) (source: World Development Indicators, The World Bank);
  • Country Credit Ratings (source: Institutional Investors Online);
  • Trade Openness (imports/exports as a % of GDP) (source: World Development 
Indicators, The World Bank);
  • Inflation, GDP deflator (annual %) (Source: World Development Indicators, The World Bank);
  • Gross National Income per capita, PPP (current international $) (source: World Development Indicators, The World Bank);
  • Environmental Sustainability Index (source: World Economic Forum).

The provision of health and medical care, and education are key indicators of the Social Wellbeing of the citizens of a state. The following indicators enable these indicators to be evaluated:

  • Healthy Life Expectancy at Birth (source: World Health Organisation);
  • Total Expenditure on Health as a % of GDP (source: World Health Organisation, The 
World Bank);
  • Immunization, measles (% of children under 12 months) (source: World Health Organisation, The World Bank);
  • Total Expenditure on Education as a % of GDP (source: World Development Indicators, The World Bank);
  • Rate of Adult Illiteracy age 15+ (source: World Development Indicators, The World Bank);

Such data enables states to be located on a continuum of state strength in three main categories based on state responsibilities. Strong states control their territories and deliver a full range and a high quality of political goods to their citizens. Weak states include a broad range of states that are inherently weak because of geographical, physical or fundamental economic constraints or basically strong, but for the moment weak because of internal antagonisms, bad management, despotism or external conflicts. 11Failed states meet none of their state responsibilities are also generally tense, deeply conflicted and dangerous areas and are often in a state of civil unrest.

2.3 The New Forms of Sovereignty for Fallen States

Sovereignty acknowledges the value of international legal equality; i.e., the equal status between independent states.12 The alternative is some qualification of sovereignty in which states would be judged by the quality of their domestic political institutions. If that were the case, at the present time, not all states would be recognised. Some states would need to be subject to international supervision until they met the requirements of the international community.13

Whatever the reason for the sovereignty fail is (either former colonies we have already considered or other examples of failed states, those ones, that have never been colonies, but have had other threats to their sovereignty and entity, such as multinational and multiregional states) the falling state loses its intrinsic attributes (as territorial centralization and binding nature of governmental decisions) and cannot fulfil the main functions it is supposed to carry on. The states, which cannot support their domestic sovereignty, become a threat not only to neighbour states, but to distant democracy states as well, because they are often military strong, have an easy access to the weapon of mass destruction, they do not control their boarders giving the free way to different kids of criminal traffic and violate easily human rights. When the threat is high and invasion is easy, powerful states are likely to use military force to bring down a menacing regime. 14 But later on the occupiers faces a difficulty of creating a new regime, which can help the state to restore their sovereignty and become a full–featured state again. Over all, however, such operations have been extremely costly and difficult.

Historically, the most common type of the fallen state was the protectorate. The relationship found in international law between the protector and protected state describes one in which the protector, as a rule, takes charge of the protected state’s foreign representation and at times also responsibility for its internal affairs. Some historical examples of this relationship are the British protectorate over Egypt (1914-1922) or the French protectorates over
Tunis (1884-1949), Morocco (1912-1956), and Cambodia
(1884-1949). For the moment, the political measures for re-establishing broken sovereignty include governance assistance and transitional administration. The former implicates mostly financial help or trainings provided by powerful states and international organizations, such as IMF or World Bank. Foreign assistance is consistent with the legal sovereignty; yet sometimes compromise Westfalian sovereignty by the influence of external actors at institutional arrangements in target states. Transitional administration typically is the assertion of executive authority authorized by the UN Security Council for a short period and monitoring the implementation of peace agreements. It also doesn’t challenge norms of conventional sovereignty or just violate it for a short period of time. C. Krasner considered both of those political options as ineffective because governance assistance “adopts formulas that reflect their own domestic experience and that may be ill suited to the government of particular target countries.”15 In point of transitional administration, the situation often may be described as “too many cooks spoil the broth”, because many external actors with varying interests might make problems related with transitional administration even worse, let alone the internal actors also may disagree about basic objectives among themselves and with external actors. In sum, transitional administration has worked best for the easiest cases, those where the key actors have already reached a mutually acceptable agreement. In these situations the transitional administration plays a monitoring role. It can be truly neutral among the contending parties. The mission does not have to be heavily armed. Transitional administration, however, is much more difficult in cases such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan where local leaders have not reached agreement on what the ultimate outcome for their polity should be and where they must think about positioning themselves to win support from parochial constituencies when transitional administration, along with its large foreign military force comes to an end.

C. Krasner suggests new institutional options for collapsed states, namely, de facto trusteeship (or modern interpretation of protectorate) and shared sovereignty. The trusteeship supposes withdrawal of the international sovereignty for the unlimited period of time. However, one that explicitly recognizes that international legal sovereignty will be withdrawn and that external actors will control many aspects of domestic sovereignty for an indefinite period of time will not be easy. Codifying a general set of principles and rules for some new kind of trusteeship or protectorate would involve deciding on the following key questions: who would appoint the authority and oversee its activities; the possible scope of authority of the governing entity; how would the appropriate moment for transferring authority to local authorities be determined and finally, what intermediate steps would be taken. The major powers, those with the capacity to create a trusteeship, want to be able to pick and choose not only where they intervene but also the policies, which they would follow if they do intervene. To date there has been no effort, for instance, to produce a treaty or convention that would define and embody in international law a new form of trusteeship. Up to now, despite the verbal recognition of the fact that conventional sovereignty might be infringed in certain cases, there is nothing codified about the trusteeship, and the rules of it are still absolutely unclear.

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