What is the role of the state in our world?

To protect the rights of all individuals within its borders, while creating the conditions most conducive to the wellbeing of its citizens.

The two aspects of this role inevitably conflict.  An individual’s right to property, for example, conflicts with the taxation required to fund infrastructure necessary for the wellbeing of all.  The right of certain individuals to life, when a state is under attack, is subordinated to the defense of others.

Conflicts between the rights of different individuals, and between the conditions conducive to the wellbeing of some citizens versus those conducive to the wellbeing of others, are also inevitable.  Therefore a critical element in executing the role of the state is to strike an acceptable balance between these conflicting demands.

The balance may vary from state to state.  But if the state is to play its legitimate role, the balance struck in every instance must fulfil two conditions: infringements should be proportionate to the benefits gained, and the balance chosen should be universally and impartially applied to all.

States which enrich tiny governing minorities – elected or unelected – at the expense of the wellbeing of the vast majority fail this test.  So do states which discriminate against minorities. So do states which enshrine in law statutes that suppress basic rights such as free speech.  So do states which have no rule of law.

So what is to be done with such states?

Here the international order faces a profound contradiction.  While it recognises the universality of human rights, and the state’s obligation to protect them, it holds the state’s sovereignty to be inviolable, and with it the state’s power to infringe them.

The only cause accepted as justification for the forcible violation of a state’s sovereignty is when that state has infringed another state’s sovereignty.  Short of that, the community of nations falls back on an ad hoc set of sanctions, in some cases wide-ranging, in other cases narrower, in some cases rigorously applied, in some cases more laxly, depending on a host of unrelated political considerations.

Sanctions can last years, or decades, without having the desired effect, in the meantime heaping more suffering on people already being abused by their own government.

How can this be right?   How can it be right to stand by and watch generation after generation of North Koreans struggle and starve because a dynasty of Kims and their thin crust of supporters seized power almost seventy years ago and have held it since through brute force?  By what right is their rule inviolable?

How can we say that it is up to the North Korean people to decide, when the North Korean people have no means either to express an opinion or to put it into effect?

On the contrary, surely our duty is to liberate the millions who suffer under that regime.  To say that we can’t violate North Korean sovereignty on their behalf is like saying that it would be wrong to knock down a door to rescue a family trapped in a burning house because we would be trespassing.

And Syria, Zimbabwe, Somalia …?

Of course, there is a way to resolve the contradiction in the international order.  That is to agree that just as the sovereignty of a state is not inviolable when it attacks another state, so it is not inviolable when it attacks its own citizens.  Just as parents who are abusing their child forfeit their right to care for that child, a state governed by a regime that fails to fulfil its legitimate role – impartially protecting the rights and supporting the wellbeing of all its people – forfeits its right to sovereignty, and only regains it once it is demonstrates that it will fulfil that role again.

What would this mean in practice?  That a regime governing a state in an egregious way, abusing its citizens, would be toppled, by force if necessary, in order to liberate its citizens, and that state would then be governed by a body overseen by external powers while its institutions were reconstituted.  That the regime in North Korea, for example, or Syria, would be forcibly removed and replaced by an internationally constituted governing body while the state was repaired.

Do I expect to see this happen any time soon?  No.  It would require consensus amongst the major powers, and too many of them – in particular Russia and China – would feel too greatly threatened by the implications for their own regimes to allow it.

But will it happen one day?  Yes.  It’s inconceivable that in fifty years, or a hundred years, or two hundred years, a North Korea or Syria or Zimbabwe will be allowed to do what such states do to their people today.

The uncertainty is not in the outcome, but in how long the journey to that outcome will take, and how much unnecessary suffering will be inflicted along the way.  But stating the principle, boldly and clearly, is the start of it.

So let’s state the principle.  The sovereignty of a state is not inviolable.  It is held in trust by the regime that governs the state, contingent on its fulfilment of the role of impartially protecting human rights and promoting the wellbeing of all its citizens.  A state that fails to fulfil this role temporarily forfeits its right to sovereignty.  And we positively owe it to the citizens caught up in such a state to take that sovereignty from it.


Copyright © Michael Honig 2017