sov.er.eign.ty, noun: supreme power or authority, the authority of a state to govern itself
Imagine you are living on the fourth floor of a six-storey building and a major altercation erupts in a neighbour’s apartment on the third floor. You soon hear sounds of violence, then shouts and screams for help. At what stage will you decide to intervene? Or will you intervene at all?
In the normal course, most people will stay away from what is someone’s private business but if a mere quarrel leads to significant domestic violence or threats to endanger life or an occupant does anything to undermine the safety of other residents, an enlightened resident may wish to do something to save the situation. Now, extend this thinking to the family of countries that constitute our planet. Why should it be any different?
What is Sovereignty?
Our planet is akin to a multi-storey apartment building that houses sovereign states. The word ‘sovereignty’ has its roots in Latin superanus and the French souverainete which is meant to convey ‘supreme power of a state’. Traditionally, sovereignty was meant to facilitate the transition from feudalism to nationalism but later found its way into mainstream political science to define the ability of a state to govern its citizens through the process of law. The term has of course got diluted and even transmuted. For example, the European Union is a divided sovereign and sovereignty has found its way in economics when we refer to consumer sovereignty. The idea of sovereignty is essentially similar to that of a community or household that is empowered to mind its own domestic affairs or an individual who is empowered to be the master of her or his destiny.
In 1945, the year in which the United Nations was founded, there were 74 countries in the entire world. That number today is 195. India at the time of independence, had 14 states and six union territories, totalling 20 administrative units. Today that number is 37 which includes 28 states and nine union territories. Over the last seven to eight decades, globally we have witnessed the trend of large units breaking up into smaller units pushing us in the direction of decentralization and individual empowerment.
The late Francisco Varela, noted Chilean microbiologist, coined it beautifully, while trying to make sense of sovereignty, and he said, “Take the phenomenon of France. France can do commerce, it can wage war, it has a history and range of cultural phenomena etc. On the other hand I cannot locate France anywhere. Where do we find France? We find it wherever the French get together to chat. It’s in the gossip, in the transactions, in the agreements, in the promises, all this network of social interactions between human agents generate this phenomenon which is the French nation. But let’s be careful, this is not to say it does not exist, but France really does exist but at the same time it’s nowhere. You cannot find it in a box or in a warehouse outside Paris.”
The Limitations of Sovereignty
Sovereignty has its advantages but there was a time when the nation-state did not exist. Evolution on our planet happened through a process of self-organization and through symbiosis. Political boundaries are after all an artificial, man-made construct. In contemporary times we have been globally inter-dependent like never before. COVID-19 revealed to us that sovereignty doesn’t matter when we collectively have to deal with a global pandemic. Other global challenges like environmental degradation and climate change reinforce the proposition that sovereignty is finite in its manifestation and can never be absolute.
The only two identities that matter are that we belong to humanity and to the biosphere. Humans are wired to connect and have common evolutionary ancestors. A state, organization, community or an individual cannot therefore be empowered to the point that it decimates the progress and lives of others. Incidents of human rights abuse be they in the United States, India, China or the Democratic Republic of Congo require understanding, dialogue and even intervention in quite the same way we will act to deal with global health challenges and global warming.
Now, let’s reimagine that instead of a six-storey building, you reside on the 40th level of a sixty-storey building and that you hear of a major quarrel in a fellow resident’s apartment on the 30th level. What changes? The only change is that further distance has been created between you and the site where the ugly altercation or incident has taken place. With the advent of technology, that space has now shrunk. We get news of such incidents instantaneously and while an individual’s call to action can get diluted, our collective call remains intact. So, it is with the family of nations. Although this will require us to tread a difficult path, only a realization of the futility and danger of absolute sovereignty will save us.
Feature image courtesy: Atlasworld.com
Shakti Saran is an Inclusive World Citizen, Writer and Senior Fellow at PYXERA Global. All views expressed are his own.