State and the People

Whose sovereignty should we measure?

Afsan Chowdhury | Published: 00:00, Sep 26,2019


IN BANGLADESH, the notion of sovereignty is taken for granted. Most countries do, based on certain conceptual frameworks. It is generally assumed that if there is an independent state, it must be fully sovereign. The attitude may be similar to religious dogma which considers the supremacy of faith as given. It is a metaphysical rather than an objective reality to most people. However, the concept is being scrutinised by scholars increasingly, particularly in the west. Many wish to test different hypothesis or establish a hierarchy of states rated according to the status of sovereignty drawing upon any analytical system.

However, even such ratings are not final and probably are produced by subjective notions of the state in which such assessments are done. There is a need to see if this is a dynamic or a static reality. The nature of the states in many aspects changes over time, making these explorations a justified academic pursuit.


Colonial to post-colonial notions of sovereignty

MOST discussions on the issue see it as an external imposition of national authority issue. A state is considered sovereign if no external power or force exerts control on the state. This notion may have been more valid under colonial times, but in the over-used term ‘post-colonial’ era, it has continued though, using different analysis terms.

Changes in the nature of the state and the world has been extensive and many states are unrecognisable even within a decade. Colonialism or control by another state has been replaced by the fluid nature of controls by many international agencies, groups, state and non-state actors. Hence, the external authority needs to be analysed and measured. Does the concept of sovereignty of the region as it stood in 1947 apply in 1971 and in 2019?

But the issue is not just external. In proto-faith-based states where the state itself assumes a ‘sacred’ identity, such discussions have rarely emerged in any domain. Hence, a strong army/government as a deterrent force of sorts to territory-hungry outside force, a strident and aggressive foreign and domestic policy emerging from that position as markers of sovereignty holds sway.

This perception insists that the state authority regarding the guarding of borders and sea channels, etc and internal insurgencies, etc appears dominant. It is always perceived as the countering of control by another, usually a bigger neighbour state — Bangladesh-India/Vietnam–China, etc. Hence, the focus is more on the territorial/military notion of sovereignty. This can result in any contest of the status quo by any citizen in becoming an ‘anti-state’ element. The designated ‘anti-state’ is, hence, subjected to appropriate legal or even extra-legal forms of action.

In the immediate days after the colonials left, it was relatively easy to hang to faith-based identifications but as states live longer, the identification is becoming more complex.

More often than not, they become producers of sovereignty reduction tools, justifying actions in the name of the sovereign state that is often counter-productive.

Before 1971, Pakistan offered a few examples which have developed into traditions in the formal state sphere. Applying the ‘doctrine of necessity’ case — Justice Munir’s justification for the dissolution of the national assembly — 1954 case — as the legal challenge would jeopardise the same is one such example.

The most obvious executive application of the concept was the attempt for the protection of the sovereignty of Pakistan by attacking its own population by the army which occurred in 1971. In both the cases, the doctrine of necessity in the best interest of sovereignty was the key trigger.


Sovereignty of authority to socio-economic sovereignty

THIS divergent notion of the concept becomes an issue because it is impossible to prevent army landings of big powers on smaller states if they wish to. Neighbours which are stronger will always be able to do it. So the question is: if that is the case, why are there so few landings? And why are states that land such as the US in the Middle East or Russia in several of its erstwhile republics are forced to commit themselves to conflict that reduce their own strategic or other capacities which guard their own sovereignty?

Has their protection of sovereignty policies failed which makes them take military action? Actions that causes them to be caught in hostile situations that reduce their sovereignty/authority? The growth of terrorism is largely linked to military actions taken by both the United States and the USSR to protect sovereignty but ended up in compromising it more than any other force in the post-cold war scenario.

These questions about the notion of sovereignty of authority have led some to question the notion of the idea itself as concrete. The need to expand it beyond authority-based application are needed as states change and post-territorial elements, including the present age of digital and virtual technology, are on the rise.


Multiple sovereignty categories

VERY broadly put, they can be drawn along (a) territorial, (b) political, (c) economic, (d) cultural, and (e) social. There can be more but these are broad areas where indicators can be set to determine the status of sovereignty. Finally, is there a difference between state and people’s sovereignty? That would mean that the monolithic idea of sovereignty itself needs probing.

Such a framework categorises the different elements within the state structure and also is not limited to the notion of the state as synonymous with governments. Sine the state can function only through governments in the traditional stream of ideas, the interpretation of sovereignty would mean asking where does sovereignty lie?

If it lies with the government as the functional arm of the state, who are its guardians? If the official and the formal world is the guardian, then what is the status of the people outside the formal world that are unpaid members of the state? Does it mean the state as a government or the state as a people? And what is the relationship of the paid workers of the government and the ordinary citizens to the state structure? Governments can fail but do people fail? What then constitutes a failed state?


Quantifying sovereignty: the western ‘authority’ model

MUCH of the work now going on is based on quantitative analysis that are located in the western, developed world. The primary methodology is to look at the factors of ‘de facto and de jure’ sovereignty. Harvard University scholar Andrew Barnet has done much work in this sector. He has come up with a methodology based on several established definitions. (Barnett, Michael Andrew. 2017. Quantifying Sovereignty: A New Way to Examine an Essential Concept)

He states in his thesis, ‘Krasner defined sovereignty in four ways: domestic, interdependence, international legal, and Westphalian in his work “Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy.” Domestic sovereignty references “the organization of public authority within a state and the level of effective control exercised by those holding authority.’

Interdependence in relation to sovereignty refers to the ability of public authorities to ‘control trans-border movements.’ International legal sovereignty refers ‘to the mutual recognition of states or other entities.’ Finally, in his definition of Westphalian, Krasner ascribed a meaning similar to the one discussed earlier in this work, calling it ‘the exclusion of external actors from domestic authority configurations.’ Krasner followed by stating that the four uses outlined above fall within a bipolar system. He states, ‘Embedded in these four usages of the term [sovereignty] is a fundamental distinction between authority and control.’

The above mentioned paradigm was developed on the external autonomy model discussed in the article before. Developed by Professor Krasner largely the logic follows relatively conventional assumptions based on authority of the state. The study has also led him to develop four categories of very high, high, medium and low sovereignty states. A key hypothesis was to test if population sizes were correlative to higher sovereignty. It was not found to be so.

Bangladesh by that score has scored low along with Afghanistan while China and India is considered medium sovereign. Australia, Canada, Luxembourg, Sweden and others are in the high sovereignty category.


History as producer of sovereignty elements

HOWEVER, to counter-test this would be to measure the impact of trade and commerce as markers of authority in a globalised world including external autonomy factors in economic and social policy formulation. Also if a history of colonialism is a factor or not in determining relative sovereignty as all countries with low sovereignty had experienced colonialism and none of the higher ones had. Therefore, a long history of economic ‘appropriation’ in the past may be a factor in achieving higher sovereignty status later. The influence of ‘authority’ may, therefore, mean a product of history also and the high-sovereign states are influencing their own and other states’ relative status.

Poor countries have low status and richer countries have higher ones which make sovereignty a marker of global inequity as well. In that case, if higher levels are to be achieved, going by history, the less status countries may seek different advantages to overcome the status and collectively impact the global scenario. For example, democracy as a factor in internal authority is higher in colonising countries and weaker in colonised ones. So, can the same measurement model apply to both?

As the higher states countries have a past track record of wealth making including appropriation from the less status holding ones, how will the low sovereignty countries strategise themselves in achieving higher status in the post-colonial world.

What the exercise shows is the decline of conventional paradigms in measuring concepts that have emerged in the developed world. In this constantly reforming world, more indicators that are located in all spheres and not just authority will need to be sought to understand how the world is shaping itself. One model of measuring may not suit all.


Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.

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