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  • Context (IE): Amid problems of the 21st century such as climate change, cybercrime, and financial crises that crisscross borders, the concepts of sovereignty and territorial integrity played out clearly. 

What is Sovereignty?

  • The term sovereignty is derived from the Latin word Superanus, meaning supreme.
  • Sovereignty refers to the supremacy or supreme power of the state. It arms the state with supreme legal authority in both internal and external spheres.
  • Internally, it establishes the state’s supremacy over all individuals and associations under its control. Externally, it upholds state’s independence from control or interference of any other state or agency.

Characteristics of Sovereignty

  • Sovereignty connotes supreme authority that must be identifiable.
  • It can be in the form of an individual such as a monarch in medieval times or in the form of a body of individuals such as parliament that represents the people, in modern times.
  • People in a polity must render habitual obedience to the sovereign as a mark of the latter’s authority.
  • There is no authority higher than the sovereign to which it can become subservient.
    • The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union exemplified the third characteristic, i.e. the British parliament should not accept the superiority of the European Parliament in Brussels.

Sovereignty and territorial integrity

  • The authority of the sovereign must have a clear territorial demarcation.
  • This is usually understood to cover full territorial extent of the sovereign’s jurisdiction, including the air space over the territory and extending to some distance into the sea if the territory has a coastline.
  • The territorial integrity of sovereignty encompasses the idea of safe and secure borders surrounding the territory. It would also incorporate the resources below the surface, such as minerals.
  • The prolonged Israel-Palestine dispute entails problems over identifying the borders between the state of Israel and the proposed state of Palestine and whether such a Palestinian state will have complete control over the air space that covers its territory.

Historical development of sovereignty

  • In the 16th century, Jean Bodin, a French writer, was the 1st to formulate the concept of sovereignty.
  • According to Bodin, the idea of sovereignty primarily entails the absolute and sole competence of law-making within the territorial boundaries of a state.
  • Thomas Hobbes defined sovereignty as the absolute and inalienable power of the ruler.
  • John Locke defined it in terms of the community’s sovereignty and the government’s limited power.
  • Jean Jacques Rousseau advocated the concept of popular sovereignty based on the ambiguous concept of General Will. His idea helped integrate the concept of sovereignty with the theory of democracy.
  • General Will refers to the point of convergence of the real will of all the members of a community. It reflects the true good of each individual and the common good of the whole community.

Shifts in the concept of Sovereignty

  • Since the beginning of the 20th century, the classical approach to sovereignty as absolute and unlimited authority began to be viewed as a threat to international peace and independent nation-states.
  • Thus, important restrictions on states’ freedom of action began to appear.
  • Hague Conventions of 1899 & 1907 established rules governing the conduct of wars on land and at sea.
  • The Covenant of the League of Nations restricted the right to wage war.
  • The Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 condemned recourse to war for the solution of international controversies and its use as an instrument of national policy.
  • The UN Charter obliged member states to “settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered”.
  • More recently, there has been a movement away from identifying sovereignty with an individual such as a monarch and associating it with the popular will of the people.
  • Also, there has been a certain de-mystification of sovereignty at the hands of many political theorists, unlike placing it on an elevated pedestal earlier.
  • Thus, sovereignty ceased to be considered as synonymous with unrestricted power.

Pluralistic view of sovereignty

  • The Pluralistic view denies sovereignty as the state’s absolute and indivisible supreme power.
  • French Philosopher Michel Foucault was of the view that power does not exist in a centralised form, but in far more diffuse, peripheral, capillary and subtle forms.
  • English pluralists such as GDH Cole and Harold Laski argued that associations and groups that existed at an intermediate level between the state and the individual such as trade guilds or trade unions also retained aspects of sovereignty.
  • Thus, rather than maintaining special pre-eminence, state was an association among many other.
  • Just as an association coordinates the activities of its members, the state also coordinates the activities of the other associations in the society.
  • These associations are equally powerful with the state in their own spheres. Hence, the state cannot claim any superior position.
  • The parts of the State are as real as the whole. The State is, therefore, distributive, not collective.
  • The state does not possess unlimited and absolute power. Its powers are limited by the social customs and conventions in the internal sphere and by the international laws and treaties in the external sphere.
  • According to them, laws are obeyed not because of fear of punishment. People obey laws because of the force of public opinion, utility, and social significance.
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