January 2, 2017


Cuba, the U.S., and the concept of sovereignty: Toward a common vocabulary? (Brookings Institution, Dec. 19th, 2016)

Although understandings of sovereignty have evolved over time, the earliest and most traditional definition asserts that states have the freedom to govern themselves as they choose, with full control over their internal and external affairs and free from interference or intervention (Glanville 2014, 2). This definition shifted after World War II when sovereignty and the reality of the interdependent nature of the modern world were couched in an international and globalizing system of interstate relations grounded in human dignity (Dent et al. 1996, 3). Thus, over time a state's respect for universal human rights became an important element of the legitimacy of state sovereignty. With the creation of the United Nations based on the sovereign equality of all members, but also on the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, member states agreed to establish a set of norms that curtail their own sovereignty to a limited extent in order to better maintain peace and security (Grimm 2015, 84).[1] After the Cold War, as democratization trends accelerated and UN member states began to exhibit less tolerance for atrocities like the Rwandan genocide, the concept developed further to reconsider the nonintervention aspect of sovereignty. States began constructing norms to govern interstate actions to protect populations (e.g., humanitarian interventions in Somalia and the Balkans) and hold leaders accountable to their international commitments (e.g., the UN-mandated intervention to restore democratically-elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in Haiti and the proliferation of regional anti-coup mechanisms in Latin America and elsewhere).

This evolution was underpinned by a contemporary and pragmatic reconciliation of state sovereignty with state responsibility, which led to the adoption by consensus of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine at the United Nations in 2005.[2] While implementation of R2P has been controversial in places like Libya, it has also played a key role in UN-mandated actions in Côte d'Ivoire and in a number of peacekeeping operations. Today's conceptualization is termed by some as "humanized sovereignty," by others as "responsible sovereignty" (Grimm 2015, 125; Jones et al. 2009, 9; Deng et al. 1996). The 1993 Vienna Declaration and Program of Action, which Cuba committed to and has affirmed (Minrex 2003), upholds the notion of "humanized sovereignty" and codifies human rights, declaring that "human rights and fundamental freedoms are the birthright of all human beings; their protection and promotion is the first responsibility of Governments" and asserting that "democracy, development and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing" (United Nations 1993).

When the concept of sovereignty first emerged, the principle of self-determination was paramount; the sovereign (no matter how chosen) was the lawmaker and thus considered to be above scrutiny under the law.[3 ]This changed in the 18th century with the American and French revolutions and the adoption of constitutional processes whereby popular sovereignty became the basis of legitimate rule. Popular sovereignty is derived from the consent of the governed and based on the protection of individual rights; when the state fails to protect these rights, the people have the right to dissolve the government and set up new trustees for that protection (Glanville 2014). This is most commonly exercised through regular free and fair elections.

While we are not obligated, other than morally, to change all undemocratic regimes, we owe them no deference and are always justified in toppling them.


Posted by at January 2, 2017 8:47 AM