05/19/2014 03:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Human Rights and the Sovereign State

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The sovereign state is the predominant form of political organization in the modern world. Sovereign states confer rights on individual citizens, using laws and policies to secure these rights within the territory of the state. Treaties and trade policies are made between sovereign states, and state leaders guide the decisions made through the United Nations. But though the world's political structure is shaped by state sovereignty, many of its needs and realities are not. Environmental concerns and transnational threats defy the borders of a state-centric world, affecting multiple states at once. Paradoxically, millions of individuals don't belong to any state at all, and their statelessness means a lack of access to protection, marginal to no control over the political processes that impact their lives, and discrimination.

Leah Yaffe graduated from Duke University in May 2013 with a B.A. in political science (theory concentration) and a certificate in ethics. She now lives in Washington, D.C., and works for the U.S. Senate. Leah is particularly interested in how to reconcile national and international law as it relates to refugee crises and statelessness.

Who or what is accountable for these stateless populations? What responsibility does the international community have to mitigate a refugee crisis, a warming planet, or an oppressive regime's war crimes against its own population? When a sovereign state cannot, or will not, fulfill its obligations toward its citizens, what should happen? There is a growing global focus on problems that transcend political borders and connect individuals worldwide, yet the role of the international community in addressing these transnational problems is complex, particularly when it conflicts with the role of the sovereign state. For instance, there is a latent tension between democratic authority and international law: In March 2013, Kenya held relatively peaceful democratic elections, an important feat in the wake of the 2007-2008 political violence following the election of former President Mwai Kibaki. The controversy? Kenyan citizens elected President Uhuru Kenyatta, a man suspected of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. Moreover, peaceful international action, often stemming from non-binding agreements, can be difficult to implement without the support of the sovereign states involved. Following the tragic August 2013 chemical weapons attack in Syria allegedly committed by Syrian government forces, the peaceful U.S.-Russia plan for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons required the compliance of the Assad regime itself. Without the support of Syria and all of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, international action would have been severely limited, and the U.S. might have led a unilateral strike instead.

My thesis, "Human Rights and the Sovereign State," asks whether the dominant political organization of our time, the sovereign state, is compatible with the humanitarian necessities of a global world. In part one, I analyze the theoretical foundations of both state sovereignty and the modern human rights movement. In chapter one, I trace the development of sovereignty from medieval times to the present, paying particular attention to the historical transition from the system of overlapping church and state authority to a system marked by independent secular authority. After analyzing the theoretical foundations of sovereignty as articulated by Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Weber, and Tocqueville, I outline five key components of the sovereign state: 1) territorial exclusivity, 2) a monopoly on the legitimate use of armed force, 3) absolute authority over internal affairs, 4) responsibility to protect citizens and territory from external enemies, and 5) the necessity of recognition from other states. In chapter two, I briefly outline Locke, Rousseau, and Kant's contributions to universalistic, rights-based thought in order to contextualize today's human rights movement, and I note how the development of sovereignty theory - especially the focus on the function of the state in relation to the individual -- actually fueled discussion about individual human rights.

In part two, I explore the contradictions between sovereign states and global humanitarianism, looking at tensions related to morality (in context of the role of the state in promoting human rights as well as self-determination) and to capacity (as it relates to the difficulties of organizing an international movement). I find that despite fundamental contradictions between the two bodies of thought, the sovereign state is a crucial element in the promotion of human rights as well as in establishing systemic respect for cultures. Indeed, I argue that the relationship between sovereign states and universal human rights is antinomic: because sovereign institutions have absolute authority over internal affairs, the state is the most effective means of obtaining real protection for political and human rights. At the same time, this authority also makes the sovereign state the greatest threat to rights, both as a dangerous source of power that can trample rights, and as a barrier to external intervention when it is unwilling or unable to protect the rights of its own citizens. This contradictory reality -- that the sovereign state is both the best provider of and the worst violator of human rights -- means that human rights institutions are dependent on state stability. State stability, however, is not similarly dependent on the protection of human rights.

In order to check the power of the state to tyrannize, murder and otherwise harm citizens, human rights must become a strong enough international force that the stability of the state depends in part on its adherence with these universal rights. So where does the international human rights movement go from here? Though I do not claim to have a solution for reconciling universal rights with sovereign law, I offer some avenues to explore; in particular, I ask whether the lessons learned from the overlapping power of the church and the state before the Treaty of Westphalia offer any model for balancing the power of modern sovereign nations and human rights. In order to increase the power of the international human rights movement, I recommend a tiered approach, focusing on its smallest expression at the individual level to its most formal expression in organizations such as the United Nations.

--Leah Yaffe

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