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Fri. February 03, 2023
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International Affairs Forum

Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

Thoughts on Law and Sovereignty

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International law consists of laws and conventions that governments must abide by. In general, laws are intangible boundaries of activity and social agreements not to break them, either in anticipation of a punishment for doing so or out of respect for the boundaries as a means of preventing anarchy. In essence, they are aimed to indirectly restrict the freedom of those who comply with the law to some degree. Whether it is a law between nations or a law between individuals, anybody who obeys a set of rules implicitly agrees to refrain from specific behaviors and behave only within the bounds of the rules. As an analogy, a person who understands and obeys the meaning of traffic lights will stop at a red light since failure to do so would result in a penalty. It should be emphasized that the regulation requiring individuals to stop at red lights does not technically prevent them from breaching it; individuals are free to pass at red lights. Individuals may even be motivated to break the law and run a red light in order to reach their destination more quickly. The rule that mandates automobiles to stop at red lights, compromises the ability to drive freely. However, laws exist in order to avoid anarchy. Without the rule requiring automobiles to stop at red lights, there would be mayhem on the road, leading to accidents and an unmanageable mess that no driver desires. Therefore, even if the violation of traffic regulations were not penalized, most individuals would nevertheless abide by them for selfish reasons: to prevent chaos and harm caused by the turmoil to themselves. Thus, regulations strike a balance between independence and collective community governance by limiting action freedom and functioning as societal norms.

The laws of different states operate in a similar manner. A state indirectly undermines part of its freedom of action and sovereignty by accepting to a law. International law recognizes the right of each nation to govern itself without interference from other states, while also establishing rules and principles governing the behavior of states toward one another. This permits international law to strike a balance between the notion of state sovereignty and the need for global governance. On the one hand, the fundamental concept of state autonomy is an essential element of international law. It asserts that each nation has the right to determine its own internal and international policies, as well as the right to enact and enforce laws within its own territory, and that these rights should not be violated by other nations. This principle is enshrined in the United Nations Charter, which designates the United Nations as the primary forum for international cooperation and outlines the principles and rules governing the behavior of its member states.

However, international law contains a number of norms and concepts that, under certain circumstances, limit the sovereign authority of nations. For instance, the United Nations Charter prohibits the use of force against another state, with the exception of self-defense and authorization by the United Nations Security Council. The purpose of this rule is to promote world peace and security by preventing governments from using unjustified force against one another and assisting in the maintenance of international order. Similarly, international law contains norms governing how individuals are to be treated within the borders of a particular state. For instance, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlines a collection of fundamental rights applicable to all people, regardless of their country of origin or state of residence. These rights are acknowledged and respected globally. This ensures that citizens are safeguarded against power abuses by their own governments and supports the rule of law and human dignity on a global scale, aimed at preventing a government from using sovereignty as an excuse for violating the rights of its own citizens. However, states have learned by unpleasant experience in the past that a system of rules or global governance is necessary. They are aware that anarchy and disorder can easily lead to devastating, protracted confrontations.

To prevent this, states agree to relinquish a portion of their sovereignty in order to establish order in international relations. In 1982, Jordan and Uganda voted against Argentina's illegal invasion of the Falkland Islands though they believed Argentina had a better title to the islands than the United Kingdom. Since they voted for the resolution solely because the attack was unlawful, this demonstrates that they respected the law and wished to maintain its legitimacy. The two governments had to sacrifice their freedom of judgment (the ability to assert that Argentina had the superior title) for the sake of international law's validity.

Because states are aware that if they encourage one another for breaking the law, others are more likely to break the law in the future, producing turmoil and endangering their own interests. International law achieves a balance between state sovereignty and the need for global governance in this manner. It does so by recognizing every nation's right to self-government and adopting laws and principles that assure the peaceful and cooperative behavior of nations toward one another. The maintenance of this equilibrium is crucial for the development of peace and security within the framework of the international system and for the protection of human rights worldwide.

Ali Mammadov is an International Relations student at Johns Hopkins University, Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and is the author of numerous articles on international affairs, geopolitics, security, and economics. 

 

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