Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Problem with Sovereign Equality

Sovereign equality, or sovereignty, is, in case you're unfamiliar with the theoretical underpinnings of international relations, the principle that states have the right and the capability to exercise supreme power (military, legislative, judicial, political, etc.) over a defined set of people within a defined territorial boundary. Sovereignty is perhaps the most important legal concept in international politics, as it creates the basic political landscape that exists today. It has a nice democratic cant, establishing that any political power recognized by the international community as such has the right to develop as it sees fit, free from external influence. Of course, powerful states have long been capable of violating the sovereignty of others, but the principle has nonetheless endured and still defines the basic legal and moral status of political actors.

Sovereignty is all well and good so long as the states that enjoy such status get along reasonably well. But what happens when they don't? I'm not talking here about petty family squabbles like those between the US and France. I mean the kind of fundamental disagreement that occurs when one state decides to disregard basic principles of international law, perhaps by, for example, slaughtering large numbers of its own people.

What can the international community do when such a tragedy occurs? Not much. Take the example of Sudan. Long under the disapproving eye of the UN and international community writ large for its brutal campaign against nomadic Arabs in the south as well as approval and support for the ethnic cleansing and genocide in Darfur, Sudan has of late been under great pressure from the United Nations' Security Council to admit a UN peacekeeping force to Darfur. There is a small (7,000) force from the African Union on the ground now, but that is too few soldiers to police the area and protect those that live there.

Today, Sudan has announced its plan: Let us do it. Rather than accept a proposed UN force, Sudan has offered to send up to 10,500 of its own troops into Darfur. In essence, what Sudan is asking for is permission to monitor the marauding janjaweed that have, with support from the Sudanese government, killed hundreds of thousands of people, displaced nearly 2 million more, and raped, tortured, beaten and maimed thousands.

What will the UN do? Not much. The UN is founded on the principle of sovereign equality, and in the absence of a Security Council resolution, which is unlikely to do Russian and Chinese ties to Khartoum, can essentially do nothing, even to a state clearly guilty of genocide. Meanwhile, as security in Darfur deteriorates in the wake of a "peace deal" signed back in May, sexual assaults against Darfuri women have been increasing.

While the UN may not bear direct responsibility for the situation in Darfur, by claiming to have jurisdiction over such issues and then refusing to act due to its institutional design, the UN certainly becomes morally culpable. It's long past time to realize that the UN is incapable of dealing with both serious threats to international security and serious violations of human rights. If the UN wants to continue protecting sovereignty, fine. But then it needs to stop pretending that it can and will protect the rights of people in sovereign countries.

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