Sunday, November 23, 2003

Weigel - On the Limits of State Sovereignty

[Excerpts from Idealism Without Illusions: U.S. Foreign Policy in the 1990's, by George Weigel. 1994.]

State sovereignty, and the consequent immunity of states from interference in their "internal affairs" is not an exceptionless norm. By agreeing to certain international human rights agreements, for example, states have voluntarily limited their sovereign claims to non-interference in their internal practices. The nature of international public life today has also "internationalized" questions that would, in an earlier era, have been regarded as a state's domestic affairs. When innocent citizens of European and North American states are put at risk in European airports because of disputes over "self-determination" in the Middle East, those disputes (and the involvement of other states and terrorist organizations in them) cannot be considered the "internal affairs" of the states (and the organizations) involved.

Moral reasoning, too, leads us to conclude that the principle of state sovereignty must not be considered exceptionless. Suppose that Nazi Germany had forsworn aggression after recovering the Rhineland and the Sudentenland, and had proceeded to implement the "Final Solution" to the Judenfrage within its own internationally recognized borders. Would the principle of state sovereignty have meant that other states were forbidden to interfere in this German "internal affair"?

Most reasonable people today would regard a positive answer to that question as morally absurd. But suppose an Indian government, controlled by militant Hindu nationalists and capable of deploying nuclear weapons, decided to settle the "Pakistan problem" and redress what it considered to be the fundamental injustice of the 1947 partition of the subcontinent, using its claims to sovereignty in Kashmir as the opening wedge for military action. Or at a somewhat less apocolyptic level, suppose the government of Turkey decided to rid itself of the Kurds in the manner in which it had once decided to rid itself of the Armenians. Does the principle of state sovereignty mean these affairs would be no one else's business? Would it constitute a fundamental breach of the principle of sovereignty of an international force -- or an individual state, for that matter -- intervened to stop the genocide of Christian tribesmen in the south of Sudan?

Put that way, the question seems to answer itself: whatever else it might mean, the principle of state sovereignty cannot mean that states are free to engage in the indiscriminate slaughter of religious, racial, or ethnic minorities within their borders. When that is taking place, othes have a right -- perhaps even a duty -- to intervene to stop the killing.

[pp. 99-100]