The question of sovereignty

Rosa Brooks argues that the drone war being carried out by President Obama, but initially President Bush. She writes that the concept of sovereignty is dead when America deals with its allies.

She writes “There’s been much comment on the Obama administration’s recently leaked Justice Department white paper on the targeted killing of U.S. citizens overseas, but most of the debate has focused on the administration’s Orwellian interpretation of the term ‘imminence.’ Less remarked upon has been its equally elastic theory of sovereignty”.

Brooks goes on to mention “Sovereignty has long been a core concept of the Westphalian international legal order. The basic idea is simple: In the international arena, all states are formally considered equal and possessed of the right to control their own internal affairs free of interference from other states. That’s what we call the principle of non-intervention — and it means, among other things, that it’s generally a big international law no-no for one state to use force inside the borders of another sovereign state”.

Brooks has a point that sovereignty is a concept that America guards vigorously, but what she does not seem to understand is that the states have a right and a duty to protect themselves from other states. This, almost by definition, involves casting aside this otherwise vital concept. Yet, the violation of sovereignty has, at times, benefits. This was clearly seen in Libya.

She adds that “A state can lawfully use force inside another sovereign state with that state’s invitation or consent, or when force is authorized by the U.N. Security Council, pursuant to the U.N. Charter, or in self-defense “in the event of an armed attack.” The principle of sovereignty might appear to pose substantial problems for U.S. drone policy: How can the United States lawfully use force to kill suspected terrorists inside Pakistan, or Somalia, or Yemen, or — hypothetically — in other states in the future? Obviously, the United States does not have Security Council authorization for drone strikes in those states”.

Yet America will always attempt to work with countries to allow drone flights to take place inside that country’s airspace, yet at the same time it has a duty, like all over countries, to protect its citizens even if it means violating international law. This was seen with the drone programme being extended to Niger, with the express permission of the government of Niger. Brooks goes on to write “neither the Obama administration nor the Bush administration before it can really be blamed for this anemic understanding of what we might call “other states’ sovereignty.” The principles of sovereignty and non-intervention have unquestionably eroded in recent years — but that erosion has been driven by technological and normative changes that go far beyond counterterrorism concerns. Specifically, human rights norms have done as much to erode traditional ideas of sovereignty as have more U.S.-centric theories of counterterrorism. In fact, for all their criticism of U.S. drone policy, those in the human rights community often embrace a theory of sovereignty remarkably similar to the theory that undergirds current U.S. counterterrorism policy. In essence, both the human rights community and the U.S. counterterrorism community increasingly view sovereignty — and the accompanying right to be free of foreign intervention — as a privilege states can earn or lose, rather than an inherent right of statehood”.

She adds “the big international law story of the last 70 years has been the erosion of traditional legal ideas of sovereignty. This has been driven in part by technological change and globalization: It’s one thing to embrace the principle of non-intervention when events in one state are unlikely to affect events in other states, but another thing altogether in an era in which money, viruses, chemical pollutants, and missiles can move across state borders in hours or minutes, rather than weeks or months. But international law’s embrace of human rights also represents a deep challenge to sovereignty, reflecting a shift away from the notion that what a state does inside its own borders is solely its own concern”.

Yet given all of these new threats, Brooks resolutely maintains the supposed sacredness of the UN Charter in a world that bears almost no resemblance to the one in which the Charter was drafted. She does note that “In 2001 — within months of the 9/11 attacks — the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty released a report asserting that the most fundamental duty of sovereign states was the protection of their populations. ‘State sovereignty implies respon­sibility….Where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwill­ing or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-interven­tion yields to the international responsibility to protect.'”

She ends the piece “the parallels between R2P and the understanding of sovereignty that undergirds U.S. drone policy are troubling. I’m no fan of the traditional legal conception of sovereignty, which has been used to mask many abuses. But in a world with no meaningful international governance structures, sovereignty — even a weak and hypocritical conception of sovereignty — is one of the few bulwarks against unilateral overreaching by great powers”. She closes the piece, “If we toss sovereignty into history’s dustbin, what will replace it?”

Yet such binary terms are unhelpful in what is quite a complicated debate.


2 Responses to “The question of sovereignty”

  1. Internet nationalism | Order and Tradition Says:

    […] the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 the nation state and the concept of sovereignty has ruled supreme and the sole, meaningful unit of international […]

  2. Pakistani drones and sovereignty | Order and Tradition Says:

    […] United Nations has come out against the drone programme of the United States saying it violates is sovereignty. It opens that “The head of a U.N. team investigating casualties from U.S. drone strikes in […]

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