What is sovereignty?

The concept of sovereignty appears in a wide range of different news stories. Brexit supporters often talk about reclaiming British sovereignty from the EU. At the same time, anti-war protesters argue that we must respect countries’ national sovereignty and avoid bombing places like Syria and Libya.

The term sovereignty is a key notion in the lexicon of diplomacy and international politics. But what does it mean?

Simply, the word ‘sovereignty’ means something like ‘national self-determination’. Anti-war protesters argue that we have no right to interfere in the politics of Syria and its government. Who governs Syria is simply a question for the Syrian people.

When Brexit voters talk about reclaiming sovereignty from the EU, what they mean is that Britain should make and execute its own laws. At its core, the message of the Vote Leave campaign was ‘Take back control’, whether that’s over fishing rights or immigration.

One of the key hurdles in the Brexit negotiations has been whether the UK should continue to accept rulings made by the European Court of Justice. This is an institution designed to uphold EU law and is currently able to overrule all other UK courts.

Pro-European Union campaigners talk about the EU in terms of ‘pooled sovereignty’. The idea is that by working together, European nations are able to achieve outcomes that are otherwise impossible.

But here our working definition of ‘national self-determination’ seems to fall apart. One of the core principles of the EU is to standardise trade and economic practices. This means overruling national governments when they break EU laws.

Others have argued that we should understand the EU (and international treaties more generally) as the partial suspension of national sovereignty so as to further other principles such as economic growth or global stability.

But is the right to national sovereignty – this ability of governments to act without external interference – an absolute right? This is a legal, as well as a moral question.

The UK government’s legal justification for Sunday’s targeted strikes on Syria rests on the idea that the bombings would alleviate “overwhelming humanitarian suffering”. The UK’s argument rests on the implicit idea that a government that gasses its own citizens (thus breaking international law) has forfeited its right to self-determination.

The problem is that there is little consensus as to whether a country can unilaterally carry out attacks for humanitarian purposes. The International Court of Justice, the United Nations’ judicial wing and one of the most respected institutions dedicated to global stability, doesn’t recognise the right of states to act without UN approval.

The problem with the concepts of sovereignty is that they are rarely absolute. So there are times when nations can forfeit their sovereignty, either through voluntary agreement or through immoral and illegal actions. But these instances are themselves up for debate. 

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