Is State Sovereignty a Privilege of the Strong?

Former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic on Trial in the Hague.

State sovereignty—the right to independence and noninterference in one’s internal affairs—is a bedrock principle of today’s international system.  It is an important international norm (a widely accepted rule prescribing appropriate behavior), it is enshrined in the United Nations charter, and its history can be traced back to the genesis of the modern Westphalian system in 1648.  However, as constructivists have pointed out, sovereignty is an evolving norm: at one time the powerful states of Europe—the leaders of the international system—only viewed fellow white, Christian countries as deserving of sovereignty, a view that justified imperialism in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere.  The norm evolved gradually as a wider and wider group of countries was seen as deserving of sovereignty, and today the principle is widely accepted as applying universally.

While the sovereign equality of all states is a principle that today’s countries praise and claim to respect, there is growing evidence that for a certain class of countries, sovereignty has its limits. 

In March 2011 the UN Security Council authorized member states to use force to protect Libya’s civilians from a brutal crackdown by Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.  NATO forces have essentially taken the side of the rebels in Libya’s civil war and some leaders, including President Obama, have called for Qaddafi to step down.  In a similar case a decade earlier, NATO forces bombed Belgrade, eventually forced Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic from power, and paved the way for an independent Kosovo after Milosevic had unleashed a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Albanians in Kosovo—a province of Serbia and thus ostensibly an “internal matter.”  This week’s arrest of war criminal Ratko Mladic in Serbia and his extradition to the war crimes tribunal in the Hague is only the latest example of political and military officials being held accountable to supranational authorities including the International Criminal Court.  The ICC, under its ambitious Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, has gone so far as to issue arrest warrants for sitting heads of state including Sudan’s Omar Al-Bashir and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.

In short, international norms seem to be evolving away from unconditional sovereignty and toward a “responsibility to protect” doctrine that says if governments fail to protect their own people from grave human rights abuses the international community has the right to intervene to do so.  But is this high-minded doctrine applied selectively to target only those countries who lack the political clout, economic pull, or military muscle to defend their own sovereignty?  Do China and Russia get away with human rights abuses because of their great power status and UN Security Council veto privileges?  Does Saudi Arabia get off the hook because of its oil wealth and powerful benefactors?  Does America’s superpower status render its political and military elites immune from ICC action despite allegations that the U.S.is responsible for war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan?  If the answer to each of these questions is “yes,” is there anything that can be done about it, or was the historian and early realist Thucydides correct when he famously said that “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must”?

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One response to “Is State Sovereignty a Privilege of the Strong?

  1. Pingback: Is the UN Security Council Broken? | World Politics News Review

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