October 12, 2005


Sovereignty as Responsibility (Amitai Etzioni, September 2005, In The National Interest)

Overshadowed by the oil-for-food scandal and demands to force Cuba and Sudan off the Commission on Human Rights is a revolutionary idea to be discussed this week at the UN World Summit in New York City. It calls for a radical change in the way sovereignty has been perceived for centuries, indeed since the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Instead of viewing nations as independent agents, immune to interference in their internal affairs, the new definition of sovereignty treats it as conditional: a nation can maintain its sovereignty only if it meets its responsibilities to its citizens and the international community. Thus a government that does not protect its people from ethnic cleansing, of the kind that occurred in Kosovo and Rwanda, or from mass starvation as found in Niger, would be considered a government that has forfeited its right to independence. The UN would be fully entitled to authorize an intervention in the internal affairs of that nation, a major departure from the Charter of the UN, which declares, “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the jurisdiction of any state.”

The idea that sovereignty should be treated henceforth as a responsibility rather than a right has been not advanced by some maverick pundit but by a high-level commission appointed by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan (The High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change, chaired by Anand Panyarachun). Kofi Annan embraced the results of the panel, stating, “The Panel has met, and even surpassed, my expectations.”

The new approach to sovereignty reflects an accumulation of profound changes in transnational moral precepts that started when the leaders of the world signed in 1948 a convention that legalized intervention to stop a genocide, in response to the horrors of the Holocaust. The grounds for intervention were further expanded when public opinion supported NATO’s interference in Serbia’s internal affairs to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and when moral outrage followed the UN’s failures to stop the genocide in Rwanda and Sudan. As a result, humanitarian interventions have become quite common (including in Haiti, East Timor, Liberia, and Congo, among others), even when the genocide standard has not been met. However, they have lacked an overarching legal doctrine that would justify them. Hence the current interest in sovereignty as responsibility.

Pretty comical to skip past the most obvious recent instance of humanitaian intervention.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 12, 2005 4:17 PM

And that's the contest. There can only be one world power.

Posted by: Luciferous at October 12, 2005 5:21 PM

Better yet, I'd like to know if the new standard would apply to thugocracies like North Korea and Cuba. Or is there some sort of "grandfather clause" to this new definition that says that if you get away with it long enough, then you are exempt from intervention?

(Another example of an intervention not mentioned is Somalia by Bush the Elder.)

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at October 12, 2005 6:06 PM

23 years ago, I watched Pat Leahy and Ted Kennedy on "This Week" (with Brinkley) as they discussed Central America. Leahy was asked by George Will what he would do to stop Cuban arms shipments to Nicaragua and El Salvador, and he responded that we should 'interdict' them. George followed up by asking if that meant sinking the ships, and Leahy said he never implied using force.

Using the word 'intervention' has the same sort of meaning here, which is why Kofi doesn't mind giving it a mild endorsement. But bring a firm resolution to the Security Council on, say, Zimbabwe, and the UN establishment will dance away like someone put fire ants on the floor.

Sovereignty is meaningless when the US decides that it is. NATO, the UN, and any other group just doesn't have the will or the power to even speak to the issue. And the idea of even honest leftists asking for military 'intervention' is just a bit too fantastic. Can you imagine if Bono begged Kofi to arrest Mugabe or the Sudanese janjaweed? When the tranzis are ready to kill some bad guys, then we can talk. But not until.

Posted by: jim hamlen at October 12, 2005 8:35 PM

A great idea, just don't let the UN be the final arbiter.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at October 12, 2005 9:49 PM