The "Arab Spring" and attempts to re-imagine sovereignty

Attempts to re-imagine sovereignty are constrained. Nevertheless, a two-tier system of sovereignty, with the second tier occupied by unelected or mis-elected governments, may emerge

US marines land on a Senegalese beach
Richard Cashman
On 9 December 2011 14:27

Arguing in defence of humanitarian intervention, David Cameron, in his address to the 66th UN General Assembly meeting in September, said that ‘we must always act with care when it comes to the internal affairs of a sovereign state, but cannot allow this to be an excuse for indifference’.

Cameron was speaking of the need to protect people and their civil and human rights by preventing their abuse. However, the broader language employed by Western states in response to the so-called Arab Spring has focused more pointedly on the alleged illegitimacy of unelected governments suppressing democratic dissent.

Given that the existing understanding of sovereignty does not enquire into the means by which leaders and governments have come to power, today there is the implication, at least, that that understanding might be under review.

It seems clear if we look to the practice by Western states of giving vocal support to people with democratic aspirations in autocratic regimes that the basis of any such recalibration will be the refrain that sovereignty now encapsulates a democratic requirement that renders autocracies, by definition, not sovereign.

However, one had to wonder when looking at Cameron’s UN  audience how many state representatives were going along with his typically steamrolling oration and how many were appalled at the idea of more frequently countenancing intervention against distasteful but sovereign regimes, not least their own.

The legal grounds for militarily intervening in a state are still confined to either self-defence, a threat to international peace and security or invitation by the state concerned. There remains little legislative link between sovereignty and democracy.

Article 25 of the 1966 UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights emphasises representative government and democratic processes and there are similar passages in the American and European Conventions on Human Rights – the latter, especially, explicitly tying democracy to state legitimacy. However, failure by a state to uphold these principles does not afford a right to others to enforce them.

That said, a lack of democracy as a precipitate to serious civil and human rights violations has been a marked focus of a broad cross-section of commentary concerning intervention in response to the events of the Arab Spring.

That commentary has discussed intervention in its multifarious forms and Cameron and France’s Nicholas Sarkozy, foremost, have spoken of a comprehensive assault on undemocratic and abusive regimes beyond military action and including the full panoply of diplomatic, legal and economic weapons.

Although history does exhibit examples of democratic processes producing governments that have opposed them, Western states continue, quite reasonably, to promote such processes on the basis that, overall, they produce cooperative governments that accommodate Western values.

But it is here where the limits of attempts to re-imagine sovereignty can be seen.

The ending of the Cold War afforded new possibilities to enforce existing laws that had become moribund by the power realities of the bi-polar situation. The 1991 Persian Gulf War was the first expression of what was sweepingly called ‘the new world order’. Thus in many ways the history of intervention since the end of the Cold War more closely resembles the kind envisaged by the drafters of the UN Charter.

However, many states – a majority in fact – remain wedded to the traditional interpretation of sovereignty, perhaps including the guaranteeing of certain rudimentary rights, but definitely premised on an understanding that there are few limits to the exercise of legitimate coercive control within a defined territory.

This is essentially still the position of Russia and China as two permanent members of the UN Security Council keen to avoid painting themselves into corners. And it is primarily they who will oppose attempts at to re-imagine sovereignty in which they see the influence of Western interests which - no matter how universally presented – they believe are opposed to their own.

In their opposition they will be supported in the West, however inadvertently, by those who point out the parallels between intervention against non-democratic regimes today and that on the grounds of religious persecution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Thus current attempts to re-imagine sovereignty will be constrained in future by both domestic and international factors. Nevertheless, a two-tier system of sovereignty with the second tier hot seats occupied by unelected or mis-elected governments may emerge. 

Richard Cashman is an Associate Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and barrister of the Middle Temple, London

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