It is impossible to speak of global citizenship without also considering the ‘S’ word. That is, ‘sovereignty’. Even in a world partaking of citizenship of a global nature, we all have the benefits and allegiances of citizenship in a state. And that state is, according to international law, sovereign. Sovereignty, in international law, signifies independence and exclusive competence to the extent that the concept of sovereignty is the point of departure in settling most questions that concern international relations between states. But, as international law has recognised since the beginning of the 20th century, sovereignty also has the aim of co-dependency, of assuring the co-existence of different interests which are worthy of legal protection.
The Victorian Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston took the view that Great Britain would protect her subjects wherever in the world they might be. That meant that Great Britain considered herself able, under the international law of the mid-19th century, to intervene in any state in the world where a British subject was in peril.
In one sense, that was global citizenship: but by way of ‘gun-boat’ diplomacy. Spool a hundred years forward, and you get another example. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the United Kingdom intervened in Albanian territorial waters, violating the sovereignty of Albania. It did so on the strength of what it called ‘self-help’. The UK intervention was undertaken on the pretext of removing mines left over from the war, mines which were a danger to British vessels sailing through the Corfu Channel.
The then newly established International Court of Justice, however, held that this ‘alleged right of intervention’ was in fact ‘the manifestation of a policy of force’ that had ‘given rise to the most serious abuses’ and should have ‘no place in International law’. In particular, the ruling noted that it was a form of action reserved for the most powerful states. Now, this statement, by the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, is one of the first pronouncements ever by a court on the possibility of what we call ‘humanitarian intervention’ in international law. In later years, too, the Court has been slow to accept arguments founded on the idea of humanitarian intervention.
The Court has instead been concerned to emphasise that the principle of non-intervention involves the right of every sovereign state to conduct its affairs without outside interference and that the prohibition against the use of force is a cornerstone of the Charter of the United Nations. Although at times more honoured in the breach than in the observance the rule of sovereign equality of states remains the central principle of international law. But what does that mean? It means that no state, or group of states, has the power to intervene in any other state. Both the Charter of the United Nations and later resolutions of the General Assembly establish that ‘the territorial integrity and political independence of the State are inviolable’.
‘no state, or group of states, has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other state’. But the Charter also speaks of saving ‘succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ and reaffirms ‘faith in fundamental human rights’ and ‘in the dignity and worth of the human person’. These different principles and rights can, and frequently do, come into conflict with the idea of ‘untrammeled sovereignty’. This was the case in the 1990s in Rwanda and in Kosovo, and more recently in Libya and in Syria. In all these conflicts, thousands of civilians were slain by their own governments, and many more were displaced.
How is it possible for international law to allow atrocities such as have happened in these places to go on without intervention from the world community? Surely it cannot be right that, because of the principle of sovereignty, people are to suffer war crimes and human rights abuses at the hands of their own rulers? Are we really to believe that, according to international law, it should be illegal for other states to intervene in situations in which innocent people are being persecuted or put to the sword by their own governments? What kind of international justice would that be?
By this argument, it would have been illegal for states such as the UK and the US to intervene in Germany in the 1930s and ’40s to stop the Nazi Reich from the mass slaughter of Jews and other minority groups such as the Roma. Against this background, there have been debates, at the UN and elsewhere, about new rules of international law taking shape which would allow humanitarian intervention or even lay down not only a right but a responsibility to protect individuals against war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and what has been termed ‘conscience shocking’ violations of international law.
In the face of human suffering, there is great temptation in saying that such rules must exist, and that they do exist already at the present time. After all, why should we protect the sovereignty of states that use their power and authority to kill their own citizens? But some of those interventions that do take place seem to give us pause. After the intervention in Libya in 2011, now almost universally thought to have been disastrous, the world community seems to have moved on from the idea of there being a responsibility to protect.
In the wake of the international intervention in Tripoli and in Benghazi, unauthorised foreign troops were installed on Libyan soil; oil contracts were handed out to enterprising contractors, mostly from the intervening states, helping themselves to the riches of the Libyan subsoil; and militias took over swathes of the country. Such realities throw into sharp relief the concept of humanitarian intervention. As the International Court said more than 60 years ago, interventions by powerful states can indeed give rise to the most serious abuses, even when founded on humanitarian principles. Giving free range to an untrammeled concept of sovereignty does not strike us as an attractive proposition. The ‘S’ word can cover a multitude of sins.
But so too, it seems, can the doctrines that purport to humanise this time-honoured idea of state sovereignty.