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Sovereignty

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Sovereignty is not a new concept, with forms of it going as far back as the Roman times. This method of organising society under a supreme authority was also used throughout the Medieval times, the Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment. There are many examples of this system even today, though there are some differences among them. Can you identify some of the countries that still use this type of political system? Read on to check your guesses!

Definition of sovereignty

Sovereignty is a political concept that refers to a dominant power or supreme authority. A King or Queen will have this supreme power in a monarchy, while Parliament has the supreme power in modern democracies.

A sovereign, in whichever form that person's role may take, wields power without any limitations, meaning that they have the power to make laws. A sovereign power lies beyond the powers of others to interfere. An example of sovereignty is a king who can rule his people without any interference from other countries.

As of 2021, there are 206 total states, broken down into 193 member states, 2 observer states (Palestine and the Holy See), and 11 classified as 'other' states. Of these states, 191 have undisputed sovereignty and 15 with disputed sovereignty.

World population review is a good source if you would like to see a map outlining all sovereign nations.

National sovereignty

National Sovereignty is when a nation has the power to govern itself. They can do so without any interference from outsiders, meaning that they have complete control over their own territory.

National means it relates to the whole of a country or nation and not just a part of it or other nations.

A simple example of national sovereignty is that in the UK, they want to drive on the left-hand side of the road. That is their decision, and they do not have to ask another country or nation for permission to do so.

State sovereignty

State = a political association that establishes sovereign power within a defined territorial area and possess a monopoly of legitimate voices

Sovereignty = the distinguishing characteristic of the state. Sovereignty is the right to have absolute and unlimited power, either legal or political, within a territory of a state

A sovereign state is when a political entity is represented by 1 centralised government with supreme authority over a geographic area.

Qualities of an official sovereign state:

  • Space or territory that has internationally recognised boundaries
  • People who live there on an ongoing basis
  • Regulations governing foreign and domestic trade
  • The ability to issue legal tender that is recognised across boundaries
  • An internationally recognised government that provides public services and police powers and has the right to make treaties, wage war, and take other actions on behalf of its people
  • Sovereignty, meaning that no other state should have power over the country's territory
  • Usually, a sovereign state is independent

In a more general sense, a nation-state is simply a large, political sovereign country or administrative territory dominated by a particular ethnicity.

Westphalian sovereignty

In October 1648, 2 peace treaties were signed in the Westphalian cities of Osnabrück and Münster, in Germany. These 2 treaties are known as the 'Peace of Westphalia'. This treaty ended the 'Thirty Years' War' (1618-1648) and the 'Eighty Years' War' (1568-1648), bringing peace to the Holy Roman Empire. Neither the Catholic nor the Protestant sides won a victory, so the peace settlement established a status quo order. This order stated that one state could not interfere with the other's religious practices.

The Holy Roman Empire ruled over much of western and central Europe from the 9th to the 19th century

Status quo = the existing state of affairs, particularly in regards to social, political, religious or military issues

The Westphalian sovereignty, also known as state sovereignty, is a principle in international law that indicates that each state has exclusive sovereignty over its own territory. The principle underlies the modern global system of sovereign states, and it is spelt out in the United Nations Charter, which states:

nothing … shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.

External sovereignty

External sovereignty concerns the relationship between sovereign power and other states.

External sovereignty is used to describe 2 elements:

  1. Regardless of status, for example, wealthy or poor, every sovereign state is legally equal in international law. The United Nations General Assembly is where each state has 1 vote, regardless of the power or lack of power of a sovereign state
  2. For a state to achieve full external sovereignty, it must be recognised as a fellow sovereign state by enough other members within the international system, especially the most powerful states

A sovereign state can exist even without any recognition from other sovereign states. Doing so, however, makes it challenging to engage positively with other sovereign states.

The apartheid regime in South Africa is a good example of an unrecognised sovereign state. With the apartheid, several 'states' were set up within the territory. While it had all the characteristics of sovereignty, it was only recognised by South Africa and the states that they set up and not by other states. They refused to acknowledge and recognise them as equal, and because of that, they did not have the key attributes of a state.

Internal sovereignty

Internal sovereignty is the relationship between sovereign power and the political community.

Internal sovereignty consists of 2 elements:

  1. Legal sovereignty: covers the right of a state to be the only law-making body for the inhabitants of the territory in question. Sovereignty does not recognise any superior or even equal legal right to make laws for a territory. That means it is no longer sovereignty as soon as either one occurs. All the citizens and people residing in a state's territory must abide by the laws of that state, and that state alone
  2. Practical sovereignty: in practice, state sovereignty can be undermined and even weakened to the point of failing by internal revolt, bringing horrendous consequences for its population with it. An example is the Lebanese state of the late 1970s/early 1980s. Legally it remained a sovereign state for its territory, but in practice, it was reduced to just a few city blocks in Beirut, as the rest was in the hands of militias and, later, Israeli and Syrian armed forces

This shows that state sovereignty is not just a legal concept; it is also closely linked to the practical power available to a state.

Challenges to state sovereignty

The Westphalian state is nearly 400 years old, and it seems that it can no longer fully keep up with today's world when it comes to state sovereignty. One reason is the many agreements today that states have to adhere to.

Even so, the legal state sovereignty stays intact. The same, however, cannot be said of the practical state sovereignty, which is facing the following challenges:

  • The structure of international society
  • The impact of globalisation
  • The spread of weapons of mass destruction
  • The growth of informal ties
  • The rise of new international actors, such as Multi-National Corporations and terrorist organisations
  • Neo-colonialism (neocolonialism)

Neo-colonialism = the economic and political policies by which great power indirectly maintains or extends its influence over other areas or people (1)

Individual sovereignty

Another term for individual sovereignty is self-ownership. It is the concept of property in one's person, expressed as the moral or natural right of a person to have bodily integrity and be the exclusive controller of one's own body.

Self-ownership has been a central idea in several political theories, and it emphasises individualism such as liberalism.

John Locke (29 August 1632 - 28 October 1704) (figure 1), an English philosopher and physician, is the first known person to talk about self-ownership, albeit in different wording. In his book 'Two Treatises on Government' he stated:

Every man has a Property in his own Person (2)

sovereignty John Locke StudySmarterFigure 1: John Locke, 1697, by Godfrey Kneller - Wikipedia (2018)

The first person to use the term 'sovereignty of the individual' was Josiah Warren (26 June 1798 - 14 April 1874) (figure 2), an American utopian socialist, individualist philosopher, polymath, social reformer, inventor, musician, printer and author.

Utopian socialism = socialism based on a belief that social ownership of the means of production can be achieved by the voluntary and peaceful surrender of their holdings by propertied groups - Merriam Webster

Polymath = a person of broad knowledge or learning. A polymath is an individual whose knowledge spans a substantial number of subjects

sovereignty Josiah Warren StudySmarterFigure 2: Josiah Warren - Wikipedia (2021)

Later on, Robert Nozick (16 November 1938 - 23 January 2002) (figure 3), a Libertarian philosopher, interpreted this that the individual:

has a right to decide what would become of himself and what he would do, and as having the right to reap the benefits of what he did

sovereignty Robert Nozick StudySmarterFigure 3: Robert Nozick, 1977, by Libertarian Review - Wikipedia (2021)

So, in simple terms, you own yourself and have the right to express yourself.

Popular sovereignty

Popular sovereignty is a controversial political doctrine where all the people have a right to participate in government.

The government can only exercise its authority within popular sovereignty if the people have explicitly granted it. In doing so, popular sovereignty limits governmental power.

Examples of when popular sovereignty was used:

  • It was first used by English-American writer Thomas Paine, who called for universal suffrage. He believed that adding more voices in political discussions would lead to better decision-making
  • It was used in the French Revolution to help establish democracy. In the Declaration of the Rights of Men and of the Citizen, from 1789, it is outlined that all men are born free and equal and that they have certain natural rights, such as liberty and resistance against oppression. Furthermore, it asserted political authority is only legitimate when the people have given their consent
  • Abraham Lincoln used this idea to justify abolition. He said that since all men have a right to liberty regardless of race or colour, slavery should be abolished as it violates people's rights

Another term for popular sovereignty is 'representative democracy.'

Popular sovereignty today

Popular sovereignty is used in different countries worldwide where citizens vote for members representing them, being at a local level such as mayors or on a state or national level such as the US Senate.

Examples of countries with such a democratic form of government include Australia, the US, Canada, Mexico, Bangladesh, Brazil and New Zealand.

While many countries are operating under popular sovereignty, some countries plan to have a direct democracy. This is a democracy where the people can vote on laws themselves rather than via an elected representative. Other countries use a mixture of both.

Popular sovereignty - misconceptions

Some common myths associated with popular sovereignty are:

  • some people think that being a sovereign means being free from all laws or restrictions. While this may have been the case in history, it is no longer the case in modern times
  • Many people believe that each person has the final say in any situation. This is incorrect because this person may not have all the (right) information to make a fully informed decision, or others may have been coerced into deciding against their will
  • People often think that popular sovereignty means having no central authority at all. This is not the case as there are always leaders who make decisions for the people

Parliamentary sovereignty

Parliamentary sovereignty is a concept in the constitutional law of some parliamentary democracies. Parliamentary sovereignty is a principle of the UK constitution, making Parliament the supreme legal authority in the UK, which can create or end any law. Generally speaking, the courts cannot overrule its legislation.

No Parliament can pass laws that future Parliaments cannot change, and in turn, Parliament can undo or change any laws that a previous Parliament passed. The fact that Parliament cannot bind its successors limits the current Parliament.

Examples of states with a sovereign legislature are Finland, Iceland, and Denmark.

The European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 further declared that it recognises that the Parliament of the United Kingdom is sovereign. So the UK has sovereignty.

Dicey and the Rule of Law

Albert Venn Dicey (figure 4) usually cited as A. V. Dicey (4 February 1835 - 7 April 1922), was a British Whig jurist and constitutional theorist. He published 'Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution' in 1885, where he outlined the principles of parliamentary sovereignty, and it is considered part of the British constitution.

Dicey also popularised 'the rule of law'.

The Rule of Law = the authority and influence of law in society, especially when viewed as a constraint on individual and institutional behaviour; (hence) the principle whereby all members of a society (including those in government) are considered equally subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes - Oxford English Dictionary

The term is closely related to constitutionalism and Rechtsstaat, and it refers to a political situation, not to any specific legal rule.

Rechtsstaat = a doctrine in continental European legal thinking. It originated in the Dutch and German legal theories. It translates into 'state of law' or 'legal state'

Dicey broke down the rule of law into 3 concepts, known as Dicey's theory:

  1. Authorities could lawfully punish no man unless they had violated the law, which was established ordinarily and applied by an ordinary court
  2. No man is above the law, and everyone, whatever condition or rank, is subject to the ordinary laws of the land
  3. The result of the ordinary law of the land is the constitution

In very simple terms: the rule of law can be seen as the foundation of all other rights, and, without rights, nothing else works.

sovereignty A.V. Dicey StudySmarterFigure 4: A.V. Dicey, 1922 - Wikipedia (2008)

Sovereignty, most states have sovereignty, StudySmarter

Sovereignty - Key takeaways

  • Sovereignty is a political concept that refers to a dominant power or supreme authority. A sovereign, whichever type it is, wields power without limitations
  • National Sovereignty is the full right and power of a nation to govern itself, without any interference from outside sources or bodies. National sovereignty has complete control over its own territory
  • A sovereign state is when a political entity is represented by 1 centralised government that has supreme authority over a geographic area
  • The Westphalian sovereignty, or state sovereignty, is a principle in international law that each state has exclusive sovereignty over its territory. The principle underlies the modern global system of sovereign states, and it is spelt out in the United Nations Charter
  • External sovereignty concerns the relationship between sovereign power and other states
  • a sovereign state can exist without the recognition of other sovereign states; however, it makes it difficult to positively engage with other sovereign states, such as making peace treaties or engaging in diplomatic relations
  • Internal sovereignty is the relationship between sovereign power and the political community
  • Another term for individual sovereignty is self-government. It is the concept of property in one's own person which is expressed as the moral or natural right of a person to have bodily integrity and be the exclusive controller of one's own body
  • Considering that popular sovereignty means that the government can only exercise authority if it has been given the people's permission, it means that this sort of sovereignty limits the powers of the government
  • Parliamentary sovereignty is a concept in the constitutional law of some parliamentary democracies. Parliamentary sovereignty is a principle of the UK constitution, making Parliament the supreme legal authority in the UK, which can create or end any law. Generally speaking, the courts cannot overrule its legislation
  • Dicey's theory: The Rule of Law = the authority and influence of law in society, especially when viewed as a constraint on individual and institutional behaviour; (hence) the principle whereby all members of a society (including those in government) are considered equally subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes

(1) Merriam Webstar. Neocolonialism. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. (2022)

(2) John Locke. Two Treatises on Government. (1689)

Sovereignty

Parliamentary sovereignty makes parliament the supreme legal authority. The limit of parliamentary sovereignty is the fact that no parliament can pass a law that future parliaments cannot reverse or change.

  1. No man could be lawfully punished by authorities unless they had violated the law which was established in an ordinary way and applied by an ordinary court
  2. No man is above the law and everyone, whatever condition or rank, is subject to the ordinary laws of the land
  3. The result of the ordinary law of the land is constitution

In short: the rule of law can be seen as the foundation of all other rights, and, without rights, nothing else works.

Sovereignty is a political concept that wields power without limitations. The ruling body has the power to make laws, and sovereign power lies beyond the powers of others to interfere.

An example of sovereignty is the power of a king to rule his people, without interference from another country. 

Yes.

Final Sovereignty Quiz

Question

What is the definition of sovereignty?

Show answer

Answer

Sovereignty is a political concept that refers to a dominant power or supreme authority. A sovereign, whichever type it is, wields power without limitations. They have the power to make laws, and a sovereign power lies beyond the powers of others to interfere

Show question

Question

What is an example of sovereignty?


Show answer

Answer

The power of a king to rule his people.

Show question

Question

As of 2021, how many sovereign states are there?


Show answer

Answer

There are 206 total states, broken down into 193 member states, 2 observer states, 11 classified as 'other' states

Show question

Question

How many undisputed sovereignties are there?


Show answer

Answer

191

Show question

Question

How many disputed sovereignties are there?


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Answer

15

Show question

Question

What is national sovereignty?


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Answer

National Sovereignty is the full right and power of a nation to govern itself, without any interference from outside sources or bodies. A national sovereignty has complete control over its own territory

Show question

Question

What is a simple example of national sovereignty?


Show answer

Answer

The fact that in the UK, they want to drive on the left-hand side of the road. That is their decision and they do not have to ask another country or nation permission to do so

Show question

Question

What is the definition of state sovereignty?


Show answer

Answer

A sovereign state is when a political entity is represented by 1 centralised government that has supreme authority over a geographic area

Show question

Question

What are the qualities of an official sovereign state?

Show answer

Answer

  • Space or territory that has internationally recognised boundaries
  • People who live there on an ongoing basis
  • Regulations governing foreign and domestic trade
  • The ability to issue legal tender that is recognised across boundaries
  • An internationally recognised government that provides public services and police powers and has the right to make treaties, wage war, and take other actions on behalf of its people
  • Sovereignty, meaning that no other state should have power over the country's territory
  • Normally, a sovereign state is independent

Show question

Question

What is the Westphalian sovereignty?


Show answer

Answer

The Westphalian sovereignty, or state sovereignty, is a principle in international law that each state has exclusive sovereignty over its territory. The principle underlies the modern international system of sovereign states and it is spelled out in the United Nations Charter

Show question

Question

What is external sovereignty?


Show answer

Answer

External sovereignty concerns the relationship between sovereign power and other states.

Show question

Question

What is an example of an unrecognised sovereign state?

Show answer

Answer

The apartheid regime in South Africa set up a number of 'states' within its territory. It had all the attributes of a sovereignty, however it was only recognised by South Africa and the other states that were set up. Other states refused to acknowledge and recognise them as an equal, therefore failing to acquire the key attribute of a state

Show question

Question

Internal sovereignty consists of which 2 elements?

Show answer

Answer

  1. legal sovereignty: covers the right of a state to be the only law-making body for the population that inhabits the territory in question. Sovereignty does not recognise any superior or even equal in the legal right to make laws for a territory. That means that as soon as either one occurs, it is no longer a sovereignty. All the citizens and people residing in a state's territory must abide by the laws of that state, and that state alone
     
  2. Practical sovereignty: in practice, a state sovereignty can be undermined and even fatally weakened by internal revolt, brining with it horrendous consequences for its population. An example is the Lebanese state of the late 1970s/early 1980s. Legally it remained a sovereign state for its territory, but in practice it was reduced to just a few city blocks in Beirut, as the rest was in the hands of militias, and, later, Israeli and Syrian armed forces

Show question

Question

What challenges does state sovereignty face?


Show answer

Answer

  • The structure of international society
  • The impact of globalisation
  • The spread of weapons of mass destruction
  • The growth of informal ties
  • The rise of new international actors, such as Multi-National Corporations and terrorist organisations
  • Neo-colonialism (sometimes also spelled as neocolonialism)

Show question

Question

What is individual sovereignty?

Show answer

Answer

Another term for individual sovereignty is self-ownership. It is the concept of property in one's own person which is expressed as the moral or natural right of a person to have bodily integrity and be the exclusive controller of one's own body. 

Simple terms: you own yourself and you have the right to express yourself

Show question

Question

What is popular sovereignty?


Show answer

Answer

This a controversial political doctrine where all the people have a right to participate in government

Show question

Question

What is Parliamentary sovereignty?


Show answer

Answer

This is a concept in the constitutional law of some parliamentary democracies. Parliamentary sovereignty is a principle of the UK constitution, making Parliament the supreme legal authority in the UK which can create or end any law. Generally speaking, the courts cannot overrule its legislation

Show question

Question

What is a limit of Parliament sovereignty?


Show answer

Answer

No Parliament can pass laws that future Parliaments cannot change and in turn, Parliament can undo or change any laws that were passed by a previous Parliament. The fact that Parliament cannot bind its successors is a limit to the current Parliament

Show question

Question

What is Dicey's theory?


Show answer

Answer

Dicey broke down the rule of law into 3 concepts, known as Dicey's theory:

  1. No man could be lawfully punished by authorities unless they had violated the law which was established in an ordinary way and applied by an ordinary court
  2. No man is above the law and everyone, whatever condition or rank, is subject to the ordinary laws of the land
  3. The result of the ordinary law of the land is constitution

In very simple terms: the rule of law can be seen as the foundation of all other rights, and, without rights, nothing else works

Show question

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