Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Right to Rule

When engaging in debates about the legitimacy of actions on the international stage, the term sovereignty (or some permutation of it) gets thrown about a lot. Sovereignty is commonly defined as "the exclusive right to exercise supreme authority over a geographic region, group of people, or oneself".

How many people, having expounded upon the legitimacy (or more likely, the illegitimacy) of an action based upon claims of sovereignty, have ever stopped to ponder the word and its implications? If one accepts the legitimacy or illegitimacy of an action rests upon a question of sovereignty, then one must question whether the sovereignty itself is legitimate. To do otherwise is to be ethically selective and intellectually dishonest.

In determining the legitimacy of a regime's sovereignty, we must look to its origin. There are essentially two ways that a regime can achieve sovereignty: it can be freely given to the regime by the people, as in a democracy, or it can be taken from the people by force or subterfuge, as in dictatorship.

The first instance is what is called popular sovereignty, and it is ultimately an outgrowth of the idea of natural rights (the basis for modern basic human rights). The idea of popular sovereignty is rooted in the works of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau in the mid 1600s to the mid 1700s. There are many different variations of the exact meaning and proper extent of popular sovereignty, but all the variations state that there is a social contract between the regime and the governed: the legitimacy of the regime's actions rest upon the majority of the people's consent.

The second instance, from a natural rights standpoint, is not an example of legitimate sovereignty. When force or farce is used to deny popular sovereignty it's a denial of a people's basic rights, and a legitimately sovereign people has every right to state that it is so. To support an illegitimately sovereign regime is to deny a people of its human rights.

So the next time that someone declares that an action was not legitimate because it was a violation of sovereignty, all people of conscience should ask themselves whether that sovereignty was legitimate to start with.


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