The Future of Sovereignty in International Law

Authur: Alizeh Khan

Theoretical contemplation around the concept of international law has echoed throughout history and philosophy. The Cold War heightened insecurities around the idea of sovereignty, which acted as a strong undercurrent for the manifestation of International law as an actualised mechanism. It was during this time that nations began utilising multilateral treaties and doctrines as a means of enforcing mutually agreed laws beyond the confines of domestic legislation. 

The importance of protecting sovereignty is an essential aspect in the establishment of international law. The idea of traditional ‘westphalian sovereignty’ remains present in the global atmosphere of today but with the dynamics of international law shifting, we must accept the valid challenges it faces and consider its role in the future of international law.

In recent years the scope of international law has broadened greatly, and today we are experiencing the continued expansion of its reach into diverse and emerging aspects of global concerns that reflect the plights of individuals worldwide. Progressive-liberal legislation concerning personal matters  like sexual and reproductive rights is facing aggressive pushback from the Global South as well the US and a number of European countries, alluding to the prevalent sovereignist undercurrent- holding onto traditional, conservative values as a means to maintain the status-quo of national identity and deny the liberal diversification of the presupposed narrative of their people. 

Such an unforgiving, inflexible approach to international law is incompatible with the galvanised social atmosphere of today that demands fluidity and acceptance. 

“The future of international law in the coming decades will continue to be shaped by the continued tensions between sovereignty and other interests of the international community, such as the protection of the environment, the development of the Responsibility to Protect and more broadly human rights.” – Dov Jacobs, Associate Professor in International Law at the Grotius Centre, Leiden University, contributor to “Targeting the State in Jus post Bellum: Towards a theory of Integrated Sovereignties” in Jus Post Bellum: Mapping the Normative Foundations.

As an organic concept, international law must keep evolving with the needs of the time; state-to-state relations are becoming increasingly focused on cooperation geared towards solving global dilemmas. The ongoing emphasis on environmental action due to the unavoidable pressure nations are facing to enforce climate protection legislation is a prime example of how international law is moving towards protecting holistic global interests, which starkly contrasts previous weaponization of international law for the purpose of furthering the sovereignty of individual states. 

Non-state actors are playing an increasingly intensified role in redefining traditional concepts of territory, sovereignty and jurisdiction. The actions of ISIS in Iraq demonstrate the sheer international impact of non-state actors and highlights the contemporary challenge of regulating non-state actors. The future of international law is undoubtedly bound to combating this challenge and its humanitarian aims overshadow any resulting sovereign infringements. This does not mean that state-centred laws and sovereignty will always be set aside in the face of humanitarian efforts, but it points to the shift in the aims of international law.

Sovereignty remains conceptually indisputable as a fixture of any given community, be it domestic or international. But the lines between domestic and international have greatly blurred, morphing the role sovereignty plays in international law.

“In the twenty-first century, the national and international cannot be so easily separated. In areas such as refugee flows, arms proliferation, environmental degradation and combating impunity, domestic initiatives and capability hold the key to international security”-Alison Bisset, Lecturer of Law, University of Reading, author of Blackstone’s International Human Rights Documents.

At this moment in time, the law is testing the value of sovereignty against the socio-political backdrop of today. The tangible dispute that this idea faces presents itself in the form of ongoing debates and conflicts. The degree of this contestation is an inherent and functional aspect of the evolution of international law. 

Whether it will reject or accept sovereignty is not the salient point. Instead we must assess whether the way that sovereignty presents itself in the law satisfies or disappoints the greater humanitarian aims of the global community. If sovereignty serves the larger goals of the international community, it will be embraced and further cemented as a key principle in international law. If it disappoints, it will become a source of aspiration and provide an opportunity for progress in the future.

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