TIC Focus l

The concept of state sovereignty is not constant and has been changing since the time this concept evolved. The inherent principles of sovereignty, such as non-intervention, territorial integrity, and absolute power within the confines of a state border, have been re-evaluated time and time again in light of new challenges to ensure that they remain relevant to the needs of any given time. For constructivists, the very notion of sovereignty is a social construct informed by amendable norms and values. Hence, the concept of sovereignty changes in reaction to the development of new norms in the international system: “Central to constructivist interpretations of sovereignty is the view that sovereignty itself comes from ‘‘someplace’’ and, in any age, is heavily influenced by other social norms and practices.”[1]

It can be asserted that the conceptualization of state sovereignty has been evolving over time due to the emergence of complex concepts like ‘Responsibility to Protect’ or ‘Humanitarian Intervention’ and ‘Human Rights’. These concepts have led the governments to secede ground in these areas while assuming greater sovereignty over other areas such as national security, integrity and national interests. The concept of sovereignty despite changing over years has remained constant in its essence that is ‘no state has the right to intervene in the internal affairs of other states and that every state is free to make its own decisions to protect its national interests’[2].

No one has been able to articulate a single definition of the concept of state sovereignty due to its variable nomenclature and different usage in various parts of the world. For example, the South Asian states use the term sovereignty in terms of protection of national borders and security while Europeans link this concept to the ‘parliament’ having powers to make rules freely. Alain de Benoist (1999) defined the term sovereignty in two ways: “The first definition applies to supreme public power, which has the right and, in theory, the capacity to impose its authority in the last instance. The second definition refers to the holder of legitimate power, who is recognized to have authority.”[3]

This definition may be temed as one of the oldest and one of the most widely accepted definition of state sovereignty. According to this definition, sovereignty may be defined as the authority which has the power to regulate the behaviors and attitudes of the masses over whom the power is being exercised. The definition continues to explain that the person who exercises such authority should be free to take any decision without any intervention. In UK concept, this means the parliament while in the most of the third world this means the dictators who should be free to take any decision of their likings and disliking’s[4].

The core conceptualization of sovereignty may be stated that all the states in the world are equal and that no one state has the right to intervene in the internal affairs of another state. Although the term ‘equal’ is not true in its essence due to some states having much more power than other states and having influence over them due to their military and economic prowess. Despite this reality, the UN Charter is the biggest propagator of state sovereignty and equality for example, Article 1(1) of the UN Charters states that this concept of state equality is based on the principle of sovereign equality of member states.[5]

The Statute of International Court of Justice also uphold this concept of state sovereignty and equality and states that no state has the right to intervene in the internal affairs of any other state and that this is the fundamental principle of internal coexistence in peaceful manner. The ‘Nicaragua Case’ is important in this regard as ICJ in this case declared illegal any intervention in the internal affairs of other states. This landmark case once again asserted that the concept of state sovereignty is based on equality regardless of the existence of interventionist economic and political system in the world. In order for us to understand the changing concept of state sovereignty, lets venture into the history of this concept[6].

The history of the world began with existence of small settlements by early humans which rapidly evolved into city states. Every city state had its own political and economic system and culture and these cities were free to make their own governing systems. These city states interacted with each other and carried out trade, commerce and diplomacy while on equal footings and free from each other influence. These states often entered into alliances with each other against a common foe or to not let any one city state accumulate unprecedented power. These city states always maintained the principle of sovereign equality and hence can be considered as one of the pioneers of the concept of sovereignty[7].

The city states paved way for the emergence of empires. These empires were an assimilation of different ethnicities, races, cultures and religions. These empires often spanned over various continents and were ruled by hereditary dynasties. These empires ruled on the basis of sovereign authority exercised by the kings who were often considered as god like figures. Whenever another empire or any tyrant rose to challenge this sovereign power, the rulers used extra-ordinary force to crush dissent or threat to their rules. The empires also ruled on the basis of sovereign authority and sovereignty was the core concept in the existence of empires[8].

The fall of Roman and Persian empires paved way for the rise of Islamic empires. The Islamic scholars gave a new concept of sovereignty where real power and authority lies with Allah Almighty. This authority is exercised by the humans on this earth as vicegerents of Allah. Islamic International Law which precedes modern international law cemented the concept of sovereignty and sovereign authority. Islamic international law divided the world into two parts. The part under the control of Islamic authorities was considered as ‘Dar ul Amaan’ while that outside of their control was considered as ‘Dar ul Harb’. The Muslims were also separated from other humans on the basis of Islam and were labeled as ‘Ummah’ enjoying special rights and protection wherever they may be. In Islamic world, the sovereignty rested with Allah which is true to this day[9].

However, the European empires or others which rose after the disintegration of Islamic Empire gave birth to a different concept of sovereignty. In these empires, the sovereign authority were the kings or the rulers who ruled in the name of their families and exercised complete control over their subjects. These empires often waged wars against each other to secure or protect their authority or sovereignty. The dark ages Europe was entangled in a complex cobweb of wars which paved way for the signing of ‘Treaty of Westphalia’. This treaty is considered as the basis of the modern concept of sovereignty. Under this treaty, European borders were redrawn and several core principles were accepted and adopted by all the European states. Some of the core principles of this treaty were that every state will recognize and respect the borders of other states. The second core principle of this treaty was that no one state will intervene in the internal affairs of other states[10].

Although the above mentioned core principles were adopted but their violations became common. The European powers went about colonizing the entire world while keeping their wars active. The colonization of Asia, South America and Africa was a violation of these countries sovereignty and self-rule. The process of colonization paved way for the rise of nationalism and self-determination in the colonized world. Both these concepts were rooted in the concept of sovereignty. This race to secure the colonies and territories abroad led to the WWI in which all the major colonial powers were at loggerheads with each other. The end of WWI saw the end of various empires and paved way for the establishment of first supra-national organization which was called ‘League of Nations’[11].

This international body called for the resolution of international disputes through dialogue and the concept of sovereignty got a new life. The efforts to criminalize aggression paved way for the adoption of Kellog-Briand Pact which declared aggression illegal. This pact also solidified the concept of sovereignty. However, the failure of League of Nations and the rise of nationalist governments in Europe led to WWII. The end of WWII paved way for the establishment of United Nations Organization. The core principles of United Nations are sovereignty and non-intervention. The UN Charter also calls for protection of sovereignty and non-intervention. The establishment of UNO was succeeded by the rapid process of decolonization. This process gave birth to new nations and countries which became part of UNO. However, the concept of sovereignty or non-intervention was dented due to Cold War[12].

Cold War was fought between USA and USSR where both countries vied for influence and the world was effectively divided into two spheres i.e. the Soviet sphere of influence consisting of communist countries and USA sphere of influence consisting of Capitalist states. This division of world into two blocks hampered the efforts of UNO to promote sovereignty in the world and many newly established states were forced to become part of one of these two blocks. The wars in Vietnam, Korea and Afghanistan were fought at behest of super powers. UNO was kept hostage by this cold war and was never able to fully implement the principles of sovereignty and equality[13].

The end of Cold War paved way for the rise of uni-polar world order based on capitalism and supra-national organizations. These organizations often exercise more power than states and they propagate the principles of free trade, human rights and equality of all humans. The rise of these international organizations has posed new challenges to the concepts of self-determination and sovereignty. Humanitarian intervention is a new concept propagated by international organizations which pose another challenge to the integrity of the states[14].

The modern world is based on a system where the concept of sovereignty is blurred. The rise of international organizations and the ever strengthening international law is diminishing the states capabilities to take decisions independently and exercising sovereignty to its fullest. The concepts like humanitarian intervention, responsibility to protect and respecting international law has led to the diminishing of state’s authority. The concept of sovereignty has also gained attention where smaller and weaker states are also vying to enhance their rights of self determination and pursuing the rights of national interests even more aggressively. The concept of sovereignty has existed in one form or another since the beginning of human civilization, but it has never been more complex than it is now[15].


[1] David A Lake, “Reflection, Evaluation, Integration: The New Sovereignty in International Relations,” International Studies Review 5, no.3 (2003): 309

[2] Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Sovereignty and Power in a Networked World Order,” Stanford Journal of International Law 40 (2004): 286

[3] De Benoist, Alain, Translated by Julia Kostova, “What is Sovereignty? from “Qu’est-ce que la souveraineté?” Éléments, no. 96 (1999): 99

[4]  Winston P. Nagan, and Craig Hammer. “The Changing Character of Sovereignty in International Law and International Relations” Columbia Journal of Transnational Law 43, (2004): 3-5

[5] G.A. Res. 2625 (XXIV) (1970), in A.O. Enabulele “Humanitarian intervention and territorial sovereignty: the dilemma of two strange bedfellows,” The International Journal of Human Rights 14, no. 3 (2010): 409

[6] Yuka Fujioka, “Does Sovereignty Help Us To Understand International Politics?: Its Change and Robustness from the Debate between Realism and Constructivism,” Kobe University Law Review no. 39 (2005): 23-24

[7] W. Michael Reisman, “Coercion and Self-Determination: Construing Charter Article 2(4),” American Journal of International Law 78 (1984);642–45 cited in Francis M. Deng “From ‘Sovereignty as Responsibility’ to the ‘Responsibility to Protect,’” 359

[8] Abram Chayes, and Antonia H Chayes, The New Sovereignty: Compliance with International Regulatory Agreements. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995),26

[9] McRae, K.D., ed., The six books of a commonweale: a facsimile reprint of the English translation of 1606, corrected and supplemented in the light of a new comparison with the French and Latin texts. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), 222

[10] Francis M. Deng, “From ‘Sovereignty as Responsibility’ to the ‘Responsibility to Protect,’” Global Responsibility to Protect 2, no.4 (2010):355-56

[11] K.D. McRae, ed., The six books of a commonweale: a facsimile reprint of the English translation of 1606, corrected and supplemented in the light of a new comparison with the French and Latin texts. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), 84

[12] Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan, 227-28 (C.B. Macpherson ed.. Penguin Books 1968) (1651), cited in John Alan Cohan. “Sovereignty in a Post-sovereign World,” 911 14 Jean Bodin, 28. Cited in ibid, 917

[13] Hideaki Shinoda, “Sovereignty Redux Re-Examining Sovereignty: From Classical Theory to the Global Age,” Review by: Stephen D. Krasner International Studies Review 3, no. 1 (2001): 134

[14] Emer de Vattel, Le Droit des Gens ou Principes de la Loi Naturelle (1758), cited in John Alan Cohan, “Sovereignty in a Post Sovereign World,” Florida Journal Of International Law 18, no. 3 (2006): 924

[15] Stephen D. Krasner, Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999),11-24


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