Global Policy Forum

'We the Peoples,' Not the States


By Nuri Albala

Le Monde diplomatique
September 2005

The United Nations system is founded on the principle of sovereignty, designed to maintain peace in the world by protecting states from foreign intervention. So how did such a peculiar and questionable idea as the right of humanitarian intervention emerge within that system? It happened step by step. In the 1960s human rights advocates argued that the rules defining foreign intervention as an illegal violation of sovereignty did not apply to them, because they related only to relations between states. Later, instead of denying that their actions violated sovereignty, humanitarian organisations began to justify their interventions in foreign countries on the basis of their motives, grounded in the principles of human rights. It was not long before some began to claim that this motive-based rationale could also be applied to states.

On 8 December 1988 the UN General Assembly passed a resolution that it regarded as a limited, prudent measure to reduce pressure in this controversial matter. Resolution 43/131, "Humanitarian assistance to victims of natural disasters and similar emergency situations", authorised NGOs and intergovernmental organisations to intervene in a humanitarian capacity. Single states were not granted this right of intervention but, in practice, powerful countries - those with the resources to mount a large-scale intervention - have used it amply. In the former Yugoslavia and in Iraq (in 1990-91), they were able to charge in with UN backing (1).

After the Dayton accords in the former Yugoslavia (2), the UN Security Council put Nato in charge of peacekeeping, the purpose for which the UN had been created. The Peace Implementation Forces were placed under Nato command, in blatant violation of article 53 of the UN charter. In this way, the supposed right of intervention, in practice available only to the most powerful states, ended as just an acceptable modern disguise for the old-style imperialism it reintroduced.

Yet the people of the South, especially in Africa and Latin America, continue to regard the upholding of national sovereignty as a priority in the struggle against social injustice and the imperial designs of powerful neighbours and patrons. The African Social Forum is campaigning for popular control of national resources and strengthening the state as a protective public power (3). The state remains, at least potentially, the prime instance of democratic decision-making and popular sovereignty. It can also be an important check on the influence of transnational businesses. Where a state is strong and resolved to defend its citizens' rights, it actively resists the corporate invasion, as demonstrated by recent measures taken by Latin American governments against oil and water multinationals. Where a state is badly organised and ineffective (as across much of Africa), corporations are put off by the unstable and unpredictable political situation; this is why the free market and the organisations and political leaders that serve it push for institutional stabilisation in "weak" states, while encouraging "strong" states to hand more responsibilities over to non-state bodies. One state, the US, still seems to exercise all the features of full sovereignty.

There is a crucial distinction to be made about sovereignty: does it belong to the state, or to the people? Where this is not specified, the principle carries little weight. In 1789 the French national assembly made its choice clear: "The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation" (4). The following two centuries saw a drift towards the affirmation of a different principle, state sovereignty. This change can mostly be ascribed to colonial conquests of the 19th and 20th centuries: the colonisers claimed to bring the benefits of state structures to peoples unable to develop them for themselves.

Despite its famous preamble - "We the peoples of the United Nations" - the UN charter effectively endorses the view that sovereignty resides in the state. Articles 3 and 4 suggest that the body is a community of states, not of peoples. The UN's founding texts move between the words "peoples", "nations" and "states" almost indiscriminately (5). Their authors cannot have been unaware of the debate about the definition of these terms but they chose not to worry about it. The ambiguity had its advantages: it avoided having to rule on the question of colonised peoples and indigenous minorities.

Precisely because the UN's members are states its charter contains the provisions of article 2, paragraph 7: "Nothing contained in the present charter shall authorise the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state." Article 53 declares that "no enforcement action shall be taken under regional arrangements or by regional agencies". The ban on all infringement of sovereignty is clearly understood as referring to state sovereignty, and applies even to the UN (except in the case of chapter 7: action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression).

The gap between state sovereignty and popular sovereignty is underlined wherever sovereignty is relinquished. States are now more willing to give up certain prerogatives, but these are not passed to democratic bodies. Governments are generally less hesitant about handing powers over to the World Trade Organisation than to the UN or to international human rights courts. Many European Union directives make it harder for states to support their public services. These result from governmental concessions to non-democratic institutions and to market principles. States are not giving up their own sovereignty but that of their populations, who are left with less control over the world taking shape around them. At the heart of the European project is a challenge to the right of peoples to determine their own fates.

This does not mean that the world is condemned to a future of face-offs between states that have steadily drained themselves of genuine sovereignty. New players have appeared on the world stage: associations, social movements and NGOs. Their role is growing within the UN (where around 2,000 NGOs now have official accreditation via a three-tier system operated by the Economic and Social Council) (6). They are especially present at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. As Franí§ois Crépeau wrote in 1997: "The state, in its traditional, Enlightenment conception can no longer claim to be the only legitimate site of political debate and collective action" (7).

But though NGOs, unions and associations can make an important contribution to resisting neoliberal globalisation, civil society is by definition heterogeneous and unequal. Since it does not represent a cross-section of the population, it should not be taken to represent the population. Yet it would be wrong to see an opposition between civil society and the state, with the latter the true representative of the nation. The two need to work together.

In 2003 the vast popular demonstrations against the Anglo-US invasion of Iraq provided crucial support for those governments that did not wish the international community to go to war. They may not have prevented the war from happening, but they did prevent it from happening with full UN approval. As this episode showed, the UN's legitimacy does ultimately depend on the peoples of the world.


(1) See UN Resolution 1511. The first Gulf war (1990-91) was not justified on humanitarian grounds, but as a response to Iraq's violation of Kuwaiti sovereignty.
(2) On 21 November 1995 at the US base at Dayton, Ohio, the presidents of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia signed an agreement that maintained Bosnia-Herzegovina's recognised borders while dividing it into two entities, a Serbian republic and a Muslim-Croat federation.
(4) Declaration of the Rights of Man, 1789, Article 3.
(5) Likewise the Inter-Allied Declaration signed in London on 12 June 1941.
(6) See NGO status at the UN.
(7) See Crépeau, introduction to Mondialisation des échanges et fonctions de l'Etat, Bruylant, Brussels, 1997.


More Information on Nations and States
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More Information on the Growing Importance of NGOs


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