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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Transcending sovereignty

<rlier this month, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad once again dropped the internationally-outlawed nerve agent Sarin on his own people, killing over 80 and causing needless suffering for countless others. Images of children unable to breath, writhing and foaming at the mouth, flooded Western news sources as accounts of the attack proliferated, causing outcry and condemnation from every Western nation. The episode, just one in a long chain of egregious acts committed by the Syrian regime, has once again sparked intense debate around whether the United States or the international community should become more militarily engaged in the Syrian civil war.

It is absurd that this debate still exists. In the face of one of history’s worst humanitarian crises, the answer should be so clear that the need to ask the question should disappear. Indeed, the whole idea of asking the question – should we intervene, or should we remain on the sidelines – is itself an anachronism, a holdover of the 17th century.

In 1648, representatives of the myriad European powers gathered in the Westphalian cities of Münster and Osnabrück, both in modern-day Germany, to sign treaties which ended both the Thirty Years’ War in the Holy Roman Empire and the Eighty Years’ War between the Spanish monarchy and the Dutch republic. Beyond the nominal peace that these treaties brokered, the Peace of Westphalia established a new international norm: recognition of sovereignty and self-determination.

Both wars were fought largely over claims for religious hegemony. In 1618, the newly elected Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II tried to impose religious uniformity upon the diverse populations of the fragmented Empire, forcing the largely protestant northern territories to convert to Roman Catholicism. Enraged, these states (largely in modern-day Germany) along with the Kingdom of Bohemia took up arms against the Catholics in the south. The fighting ultimately brought in Sweden and France, creating a Europe-wide conflict that claimed eight million lives. At the same time, the Spanish monarchy was fighting with its Dutch dominions in the Netherlands.

Similarly, the Spanish were attempting to assert Catholic superiority in a predominantly Protestant region that increasingly pined for independence. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia ended the fighting by establishing the principle of self-determination (which the Dutch longed for) as well the preeminence of sovereignty in the international community. Westphalian sovereignty, as it is understood, effectively establishes that individual states have full control and authority over domestic affairs; any interference by an outside force is a violation of that state’s sovereignty and is nothing short of a declaration of war.

Westphalian sovereignty has been the dominant modality of international relations to this day. The idea of sovereignty and state hegemony over internal affairs has become so ossified in our collective minds that even so-called supranational bodies continue to function within this Westphalian paradigm. The United Nations, for example, despite being a body designed to transcend national boundaries and to foster “international co-operation”, still cannot escape the confines of national sovereignty. Individual nation-states command immense power within the UN and continue to pursue national interests in a body considered to be post-sovereign. Tellingly, the Security Council, which is the UN’s most powerful body, still respects sovereign rights by granting unmediated veto power to the five permanent members, the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia. If a resolution or action of the Security Council goes against the interests of even just one of these five nations, it will swiftly be torpedoed, placing real power not in New York, but in Washington, London, Paris, Beijing and Moscow.

This poses issues when it comes to intervention. Under Westphalian sovereignty, a modern state can do whatever it wants to its own people, regardless of how heinous. Bashar al-Assad can, for example, continue to use sarin gas on innocent civilians, murdering them without being subject to foreign intervention. Clearly, there is something wrong with this picture.

Indeed, the international community recognized the limitations of Westphalian sovereignty in the early 2000s, drawing on its collective experience facing both the genocide in Rwanda and the deadly civil war in the former Yugoslavia. In 2005, the UN adopted the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which calls on every government to prevent genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. In cases where these norms are violated, the doctrine gives legal validity to the UN Security Council to take military action to protect innocent civilians.

Unfortunately, no matter how hard it may work to brand itself otherwise, the UN is still an institution rooted in the principle of sovereignty, pulled every which way by competing national interests. In cases where there has been a clear violation of human rights, these competing national interests can slow action by the UN and render it effectively useless. (In fact, we have seen this with the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Russia, whose national interests reside with the Assad regime, vetoed a UN resolution condemning the attacks.) Instead of relying on this body, then, states and coalitions of states must take the aim of R2P to heart and protect innocent civilian populations throughout the world. Intervening on behalf of threatened civilians should not be seen as a violation of sovereignty, but a moral and legal imperative of the 21st century.

In a world where dictators can murder over 80 innocent men, women and children with one bombing raid and where civil war can kill over half a million and displace more than 11 million, the international community must recognize that there are certain moral imperatives that must transcend a legal doctrine designed roughly 350 years ago. In a world that is increasingly connected, where civilian dislocations impact every continent in profound ways, states must see that the divisions between domestic and international, internal and external are no longer as clear as they were in Münster and Osnabrück, requiring a new way of understanding the international system that moves beyond the paradigm of sovereignty.

It is high-time to leave the 17th century behind.

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