The Issue of Sovereignty
The Issue of Sovereignty

State sovereignty is the concept that states are in complete and exclusive control of all the people and property within their territory. State sovereignty also includes the idea that all states are equal as states. In other words, despite their different land masses, population sizes, or financial capabilities, all states, ranging from tiny islands of Micronesia to vast expanse of Russia, have an equal right to function as a state and make decisions about what occurs within their own borders. Since all states are equal in this sense, one state does not have the right to interfere with the internal affairs of another state.

Practically, sovereignty means that one state cannot demand that another state take any particular internal action. For example, if Canada did not approve of a Brazilian plan to turn a large section of Brazil’s rainforest into an amusement park, the Canadian reaction is limited by Brazil’s sovereignty. Canada may meet with the Brazilian government to try to convince them to halt the project. Canada may bring the issue before the UN to survey the world’s opinion of the project. Canada may even make politically embarrassing public complaints in the world media. However, Canada cannot simply tell Brazil to stop the rainforest project and expect Brazil to obey.

Under the concept of state sovereignty, no state has the authority to tell another state how to control its internal affairs. Sovereignty both grants and limits power: it gives states complete control over their own territory while restricting the influence that states have on one another. In this example, sovereignty gives the power to Brazil to ultimately decide what to do with its rainforest resources and limits the power of Canada to impact this decision.

Globalization is changing this view of sovereignty, however. In the case of the Brazilian rainforest, Brazil may consider a rainforest located wholly within its property an issue solely of internal concern. Canada may claim that the world community has a valid claim on all limited rainforest resources, regardless of where the rainforest is located, especially in consideration of issues like endangered species and air pollution.

Similarly, states no longer view the treatment of citizens of one state as only the exclusive concern of that state. International human rights law is based on the idea that the entire global community is responsible for the rights of every individual.

International treaties, therefore, bind states to give their own citizens rights that are agreed on at a global level. In some cases, other countries can even monitor and enforce human rights treaties against a state for the treatment of the offending state’s own citizens.


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