Is the Meaning of State Sovereignty Undergoing a Fundamental Transformation?

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08/02/20 Politics Reference this

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The idea of state sovereignty is undergoing a fundamental transformation and this essay shall argue that an increased attention to humanitarian crises has led to the demise of absolute state sovereignty. The idea of sovereignty can be argued to have emerged at The Peace of Westphalia in 1648. F. H. Hinsley, an English historian, described sovereignty as: “the idea that there is a final and absolute political authority in the political community… and no final and absolute authority exists elsewhere”[1]. With the rise of globalisation, this definition is skewed: while states maintain a degree of authority, the rise of global institutions has led doubts over the diminution in state sovereignty. Furthermore, increases in foreign intervention by countries like America clearly indicate that states are not equal – a core tenet of The Peace of Westphalia. The meaning of sovereignty has changed from that previously of one which provides states with certain core rights, to one that gives them certain responsibilities.

Arguably very different to modern day international politics; The Peace of Westphalia established the norm against intervention in other states’ current affairs. Importantly, this principle assumed every state was equal and had basic rights like full authority over territory and domestic affairs. This idea was maintained until the Cold War. During this time, the political and territorial components of states was upheld with a ‘firmly non-interventionist conception of sovereignty prevailing’.[2] Throughout this period, military involvement in the matters of another state, irrespective of the reasoning that supported it, was considered a violation of the non-intervention norm. However, rare military interventions did occur through the Cold War. One example is with India and East Pakistan. In 1971 the Pakistani military ordered a genocidal suppression of the East Pakistan democratic forces who wanted regional independence. The suppression became a civil war and displaced millions of locals. Later in the year, India officially declared war on Pakistan based on human rights violations. The 1971 war is often cited as ‘one of the first cases of humanitarian intervention in world history’ and was met with fierce criticism by the international community.[3] According to other countries, India had broken the principles of sovereignty by trespassing on Pakistan’s sovereignty – an infallible right. On the international stage, this was the distinctive mentality all countries took towards sovereignty during the Cold War period.

Furthermore, the idea that sovereignty was uninfringeable during this time can be also shown by Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia. Mirroring the intervention in Pakistan, Vietnam intervened in Cambodia based on a humanitarian crisis, only to face great backlash by many countries. In 1978, Vietnam launched an attack in Cambodia to remove political leader Pol Pot, whose Khmer Rouge regime was responsible for killing two million Cambodians.[4] Pol Pot ‘conducted bloody cross-border raids into Vietnam, massacring civilians and torching villages’, however despite this, Vietnam, like India, were heavily criticized for their actions by the international community.[5] Such criticism stemmed from the idea that Cambodia was a sovereign state and thus was allowed to act in whatever way it deemed necessary towards the people within its territory. Cambodia could act with as much freedom as it wanted because of the basic right of non-intervention provided by absolute sovereignty; something which would not be accepted in global politics today.

As the Cold War ended, the core idea behind sovereignty began to change. While absolute sovereignty was respected during the Cold War periods, this began to transform as more and more foreign interventions began to take place. The early 1990s brought with it ‘a spread of optimism regarding the international community’s new-found capacity for dealing with humanitarian issues.’[6] During the Cold War the UN Security council was unable to act efficiently in global politics; effectively incapacitated by the consistent use of veto power by the 5 permanent council members, each of whom wanted to protect their spheres of influence. The breakdown of the Cold War carried an end to automatic vetoes as the once divided international community all followed one ideology now – capitalism. With this unexpected influence, the UN Security council became much better at dealing with international conflicts and increased their peacekeeping operations. Writing in the New York Times, Micheal Ignatieff said “since the end of the Cold War, human rights have become the dominant moral vocabulary in foreign affairs”[7] , indicating that an increase in humanitarian intervention showed that human rights abuse was playing a pivotal role in redefining what sovereignty meant.

One important example representing the clear change in sovereignty because of humanitarian issues during this time, is the intervention in Northern Iraq in 1991. The 1991 Gulf War was fought because of Iraq’s invasion of their neighboring country Kuwait. After Iraq refused to remove their troops from Kuwait after the UN deadline, a coalition of 29-member states within the UN was released and swiftly engaged and won against the Iraqi army. However, while Iraq withdrew from Kuwait, Saddam Hussain, the dictator, was still in power and after losing the Gulf War, began to wreak vengeance on the citizens of Iraq. Following an uprising by Iraqi civilians and rebels, Saddam Hussain viciously repressed the Kurdish rebellion resulting in nearly 2 million Kurds fleeing the country.[8] The event became a humanitarian issue due to the high loss of life and the ensuing great tide of refugees leaving the country. As such, the media provided a great deal of political pressure. While at first the United States was hesitant; not wanting to interfere and break the principle of non-intervention, nevertheless, media pressure grew, and this forced the UN Security council to launch ‘Operation Provide Comfort’[9]. This operation – spearheaded by a Western coalition – involved delivering necessary supplies such a food and blankets to Iraqi civilians and the creation of safe havens within the country. The creation of safe havens implied a particularly prominent violation of Iraqi sovereignty as it basically allowed western troops to occupy portions of Iraq’s sovereign territory.

Despite the clear breach of absolute sovereignty, it was determined that Iraq’s sovereignty was inviolable. The intervention in Iraq is sharply distinct from that of India and East Pakistan; India was sharply criticized for interfering in Pakistan’s internal affairs and preventing the violent repression of Bengalis. Following the Iraq intervention, it was clear that sovereignty was fundamentally changing. Mass human rights abuse by a state was not left to be an internal matter, and the UN acting as an international governing body suggests that sovereignty transformed from implying absolute control within one’s jurisdiction, to carrying a certain responsibility of looking after one’s own population. A new standard had been created; military involvement for humanitarian issues, effectively ending the era of ‘sovereignty without responsibility’.[10]

While external military interventions for humanitarian reasons had taken place frequently since the end of the Cold War, it was not without heated debate. NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999 was one of the most controversial military interferences at the time. When the Serbian leader removed autonomy of Kosovo, bringing it under control of Belgrade, open conflict began to take place between the Serbian military and Kosovar Albanian forces. Due to the mounting conflict and repeated failure at diplomatic efforts, NATO intervened by carrying out air strikes, and justified this campaign as a ‘humanitarian war’. Arguably, while the intervention helped end the war, critics allege that the airstrikes created more carnage then it had averted; with many people disapproving of the way NATO had controlled the operation. Countless people claim that while NATO officially intervened on a humanitarian basis; there was an underlying economic and political motivation to get involved. Fernando R. Tenson, writing in the Amsterdam Law Forum disagrees even going as far as stating that, “A striking feature of the Kosovo incident is the relative purity of the incident as an instance of humanitarian intervention.” [11] Experts often disagree with the true intentions of any intervention. However, what is clear is that more and more states have begun to question the idea of absolute sovereignty; while the Cold War era continued the supremacy of the non- intervention norm, this is a far cry from today. States today believe they have the moral justification to interfere.

With the distinct transformation of sovereignty, this posed a significant policy challenge to the UN Security council. That year at the United Nations General Assembly, Secretary General Kofi Annan addressed the recent controversial interventions saying:

“if humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica – to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?”[12]

In his speech, Kofi Annan addresses the main problem with sovereignty in a post-Cold War world. How does a state protect the basic human rights of repressed people while upholding the core idea of state sovereignty? It was in response to this question that the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) was created. The ICISS created a formal report outlying the main responsibilities attributed to sovereignty. The purpose of the ICISS was that “sovereign states have a responsibility to protect their own citizens from avoidable catastrophe…but when they are unwilling or unable to do so, that responsibility must be borne out by the broader community of states”[13] . Because of the official report being produced, sovereignty was now not an inherent right but instead a conditional concept; given only to those who satisfied certain responsibilities, which included protecting their populations from: genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity[14]. Therefore, adhering to the responsibilities of sovereignty was the greatest way of protecting your own sovereignty as the right to non-intervention and non-interference was contingent to following this.

Because of humanitarian crises, the idea of sovereignty is fundamentally changing. Throughout the Cold War; sovereignty was viewed as absolute and any interventions which took place for humanitarian reasoning was dismissed as a defilement of sovereignty. This perception transformed during the 1990s when mass human rights abuse was believed to be a universal issue and could even in some situations result in direct military intervention at the expense of the respective states’ sovereignty. This change was met with increasing acknowledgement that states had a fundamental responsibility towards keeping their people safe. On the turn of the century, the ICISS adopted the concept of ‘the responsibility to protect’ into formal reports laying the groundwork for future policy decisions surrounding further interventions. This adoption was accepted by UN member states and highlights the scale of evolution in the mentality surrounding sovereignty. Interventions for humanitarian crises are controversial; with states often intervening for ulterior motives, even causing more damage then is required. Recent genocides in Darfur and Sri Lanka have not been handled well, however, while the UN may have ‘dropped the ball’ regarding these tragedies, interventions in Kenya in 2008 have largely been a success and have helped avert an atrocity.[15] Clearly there is still room for improvement on dealing with humanitarian issues, but like the idea of sovereignty, the method is continually adapting to keep up with the times.


         Glanville, Luke. “The Antecedents of ‘Sovereignty as Responsibility’.” European Journal of International Relations 17, no. 2 (2010): 233-255.
  • ICISS (2001): The Responsibility to Protect, Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), Ottawa, ON: International Development Research Centre.
  • Ignatieff, Michael. “Is the Human Rights Era Ending?”,%20accessed%20on%205/4/2013 (accessed 9th October)
  • Kevin, Doyle. “Vietnam’s Forgotten Cambodian War” BBC (accessed October 5th)
  • Ramsbotham, Oliver. Humanitarian Intervention in Contemporary Conflict. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers Inc, 1996
  • Tenson, Fernando. Kosovo: “A Powerful Precedent for the Doctrine of Humanitarian Intervention.” Amsterdam Law Forum 1(2009): 42-48
  • UNGA Resolution (2005). 2005 World Summit Outcome. UN Doc A/RES/60/1. (accessed October 10th 2018)

[1] Croxton, Derek. “The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 and the Origins of Sovereignty.” The International History Review 21, no. 3 (1999): 569.

[2] Glanville, Luke. “The antecedents of ‘sovereignty as responsibility’.” European Journal of International Relations 17, no. 2 (2010): 233-255.

[3] Corden, Sonia. “India’s response to the 1971 East Pakistan crisis: hidden and open reasons for intervention.” Journal of Genocide Research 17 (2014) 45-46

[4] Kevin, Doyle. “Vietnam’s forgotten Cambodian War” BBC (accessed October 5th)

[5] ibid

[6] Desai, Misha. 2013. Human Intervention in Post -Cold War era

[7] Ignatieff, Michael. “Is the Human Rights Era Ending?”,%20accessed%20on%205/4/2013 (accessed 9th October)

[8] Adelman, Howard. “Humanitarian Intervention: The Case of the Kurds.” International Journal of Refugee Law 4 (1992): 4

[9] Ramsbotham, Oliver. Humanitarian Intervention in Contemporary Conflict. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers Inc, 1996

[10] Glanville, Luke. “The antecedents of ‘sovereignty as responsibility”European Journal of International Relations 17 (2010): 233-255


[11] Tenson, Fernando. Kosovo: “A Powerful Precedent for the Doctrine of Humanitarian Intervention.” Amsterdam Law Forum 1(2009): 42-48

[12] ICISS (2001): The Responsibility to Protect, Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), Ottawa, ON: International Development Research Centre.

[13] ibid

[14] UNGA Resolution (2005). 2005 World Summit Outcome. UN Doc A/RES/60/1. (October 10th)

[15] Evans, Gareth. “Ethnopolitical Conflict: When is it Right to Interfere?”. Ethnopolitics 10 (2011): 115-123

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