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Does Sovereignty Trump Human Rights

by Ryan Ringer
April 7, 2006

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse.
- John Stuart Mill

In a world of sovereign nations, it becomes necessary to examine the ethical implications of conflict between those nations. The issue most applicable to the current state of world affairs, with the international body regulating the use of force between nations having been proven to be ineffective at preventing such force, is under what conditions may a nation initiate force against another? There is a school of thought which believes that any and all conflict between nations is impermissible unless one is acting in either immediate or pre-emptive self-defence or defence of allies. It is this school of though with which this essay is concerned.

Under what conditions ought a sovereign nation to militarily invade another sovereign nation? The question requires the consideration of the most basic of modern principles � human rights. In particular, can there be any consideration which is of higher priority than human rights: the right to life, the right to security of the person, the right to free speech, free expression, and in general, rationally limited freedom? Certainly not. The fundamental Kantian dignity deserved by human beings gives free nations not only the right, but the duty, to use any means necessary to defend human rights, up to and including the use of force; in short, sovereignty does not trump human rights, rather, quite the opposite is true.

The truth is, in social contract theory, human beings do allow the state to take coercive action � that is, use force � in protection of their human rights. This can hardly be disputed, examples are as prevalent as they are obvious. Governments do not allow one citizen to murder another, nor use physical violence against each other; at minimal levels of involvement, they impose threats of force against those who violate the basic human rights of their citizens. Thus is acknowledged a very basic principle � that the sovereignty and free agency of individuals shall only be respected insofar as they respect the basic human rights of others. Violation of human rights is a justifiable cause for a government to take coercive action against its citizens.

Along the same line, then, is not a government justified in violating the sovereignty of other nations for the purpose of defending human rights? If a sovereign individual invades the human rights of another, government takes coercive action. Therefore, if a sovereign nation invades the human rights of individuals, governments ought to be able to act, in legal terms, in �defence of others.�

There is an argument often made that it is not the role of a sovereign nation-state to take corrective action against another sovereign nation-state, even in the interests of human rights. Not only is this position hopelessly na�ve � the assumption that human beings in one nation-state have human rights worth defending, and human beings in another nation-state do not have those same rights assuming a fundamental moral inequality of human beings, which is absurd on its face � it is internally inconsistent. The argument assumes the sovereignty of nations, which are made up of individuals, while ignoring the sovereignty of individuals. It necessitates that individuals who are members of the government have an inherent right to do as they please, even if doing so violates the inherent rights of others. This defending of the right to sovereignty is internally inconsistent in that it calls into question the very possibility of the existence of a right. After all, the argument being made is an absolute one � that is, rights are absolute. Thus, the right of a sovereign nation to do as it pleases is absolute. However, what of other rights, of human rights? Are they not absolute, also? The necessary answer, under this theory of absolute national sovereignty, is that they are not. There can, in fact, be no such things as absolute human rights if there is an absolute right to uninhibited national sovereignty.

Thomas Hobbes wrote in his social contract theory that it is the duty of governments to protect citizens from each other. If the government fails to perform at least its most basic function of keeping its citizens safe, then it is no longer a legitimate government, as it has reneged on its agreement in the social contract. It is surely the case in countries which violate human rights, often through murder or genocide, that those governments are no longer legitimate, as they are no longer keeping their citizens safe. It would thus be just for the citizens to overthrow that government.

But what of the case of international intervention? If human dignity and human rights are indeed universal, then the overthrow of a government which has ceased to perform its most basic duty � or worse, actively promotes the opposite of its basic duty by killing its citizens � would be just, even if undertaken by a foreign body. The universality of human dignity is not and, morally, cannot be limited by something as artificial as a national border. If human beings have natural rights, then those natural rights cannot change from nation to nation, and gross violations of these rights inflicted against one people surely deserves an answer from another, regardless of artificial borders.

There is of course an international body in the United Nations overseeing the use of force between nations. In a sense, the United Nations could be seen as a form of world government, with its goal being the protection of the citizens of the world. Therefore, its laws prohibiting the use of force by one sovereign against another ought to be respect � at least on the face of things. A deeper analysis reveals a similar Hobbesian conflict. If the goal of any legitimate authority should be first and foremost the protection of the most basic and fundamental human rights of individuals, and failing to perform this goal is grounds for a legitimate rebellion against the authority, then the United Nations has most certainly failed to live up to its end of the social contract. Therefore, just as it is legitimate for one individual to defend the rights of another; just as it is legitimate for a people to ignore their authority when it is no longer legitimate, it is entirely morally permissible for one people to defend the rights of another through direct and possibly (or likely) violent action. A utilitarian argument could also be made for the invasion of nation-states which violate human rights. On the whole and by and large, governments which commit such grievous abuses of the human rights of their citizens commit them in such a way that the impact of a war to free them from the abuse would cause less net suffering than allowing the abuse to continue. If a war to free the people of a country from the abuse of their government would be conducive to the general happiness, Mill would argue that such conflict would be morally permitted, if not necessary.

In this particular utilitarian case, the measure of a just war would be its impact upon the general happiness. If it could be reasonably assumed that the use of force would be conducive to the general happiness, then it would be required. However, if it could be reasonably assumed that the use of force would be detrimental to the general happiness � for example, the other nation was incredibly powerful, such that a conflict with it would cause immense amounts of devastation, death and disruption to the lives of individuals � then the war would not be just. Examined critically, there is actually very little in the way of arguments against all use of force against rights-abusing governments. The only argument which is actually internally consistent is that of pacifism. However, the pacifist�s argument is externally inconsistent, in that it does not objectively work in a practical way. The pacifist himself, after all, requires those who are willing to use force to defend him against those who are willing to use force against him. He would not be free to practice his pacifism were not others prepared to break the key tenet of pacifism.

Human rights are either absolute, or they do not exist. The right of a nation to sovereignty does not trump the rights of its citizens to their most basic human rights. On grounds, utilitarian, deontological and consequential, there are many justifications for the use of force against those who violate those rights. It is recognized almost universally that governments have the right to protect those rights within their borders. It is a simple logical conclusion which would permit governments to protect the rights of others, as well. After all, if all human beings are morally equal, then the existence of man-made national borders can certainly be no barrier to this moral equality. The school of thought which believes that all conflict between nations is impermissible are the philosophical equivalent to the moral pacifists, who refuse violence in all circumstances, and are completely inconsistent because of it. For the sake of the general happiness, or for the sake of fundamental human dignity, and human rights, nation-states are as justified in defending individual human beings within their borders from grievous infringements upon their persons as they are defending individual human beings without.