Beyond considering sovereignty and law as problems, we can utilize them as methods of empowerment through the fulfillment of human needs. Because sovereignty and law are inextricably connected, the way we define one impacts the way the other is implemented and enforced.
Through the lens of global law, sovereignty focuses on how humans choose to govern themselves. This definition of sovereignty entails humans jointly implementing rights and responsibilities and fulfilling each other's needs at the world level; in other words, humans have the power to act on behalf of the community as a whole and individuals as a part.
Human sovereignty also means individuals claiming personal authority over their own lives and assuming responsibility toward others. The authority aspect of sovereignty empowers us to maintain individual control and exercise human rights, and the responsibility aspect of sovereignty requires us to see that others' needs are met and not to infringe upon their rights. By understanding sovereignty through the rubric of "authority as rights" and "responsibility as duties," we can better understand how to define law to help us determine and fulfill our needs.
Emery Reves provides a brief history of sovereignty as a source of and an influence on our definition of law. He explains how people first looked to religion and God as determinants/regulators of human action. Later, people obeyed tribal chiefs, feudal lords, emperors and monarchs. Finally, people reclaimed sovereign ruling power for themselves, i.e., for the community. This eighteenth-century conception of sovereignty was meant to represent the largest grouping of people who could easily communicate with each other. At that time, with horse and buggy transportation and an agricultural, rural and indigenous economy, the nation was the broadest sense of community.
Now we are living in a global community, one in which technology, communication and industry transcend national borders. Yet nationalism and industrialism are pitted against one another because the exclusive and belligerent politics of nationalism cannot be reconciled with the inclusive and contractual economics of industrialism. Reves writes, "It is the collision between our political life and our economic and technological life that is the cause of the twentieth century crisis with which we have been struggling since 1914, as helpless guinea pigs."
In order to prevent globalization and democratization of sovereignty through industrialism, nation-states have co-opted industry to maintain national control over their claimed territory. The "military-industrial complex" rules national economies, determining how limited resources will be utilized. And corporations are quickly claiming new oppressive sovereignty. For example, William Knoke explains in Bold New World that individuals pledge their loyalty to products and brands even more than to particular governments.
As humans continue to vest sovereign power in the national governments or corporations that claim to represent them, their needs become fulfilled less and less and their rights are trampled upon more and more, leading to further anarchy.
"The first step toward ending the present chaos," according to Reves, "is to overcome the tremendous emotional obstacle which prevents us from realizing and admitting that the ideal of sovereign nation-states, with all its great record of success during the nineteenth century, is today the cause of all the immeasurable suffering and misery of this world."
Commenting on life in the 1940s, Reves writes, "We are living in complete anarchy because in a small world, interrelated in every other respect, there are seventy or eighty separate sources of law--seventy or eighty sovereignties."
Today, there are almost 200 separate putative sovereignties, each establishing its own laws. Their laws cannot deal with so-called internal problems let alone global crises because their laws do not relate to humans in total, to humans whose community is now the world.
Humans create government to "safeguard their lives and liberty," to resolve their many problems and to fulfill certain basic needs. The Declaration of Independence typifies how people united to form a new government to fulfill their needs. To secure the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the Declaration states, "Governments are instituted among Men (sic), deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government. . ."
Reves applies the Declaration to the political paradigm locked in nationalism: ". . . Nation-states, even the most powerful, are no longer strong enough, no longer powerful enough to fulfill the purpose for which they were created. They cannot prevent disasters like the first and second World Wars. They cannot protect their peoples against the devastation of international war." Recent atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda and Burundi, along with the existence of more than 40 million refugees around the world, attest to the impotence of the nation-state, which Reves deemed "bankrupt."
National "sovereignty" is a legal fiction, unable to protect us from nuclear annihilation. Global human sovereignty, however, can be a political fact and the basis for world peace--if we claim it.
Almost every national constitution, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, states that the "will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government." But we must express our sovereign will, individually and globally. To respond to the needs of the world community, the sovereignty and law by which we choose to live together must be both global and just.
The nation-state can no longer adequately fulfill human organizational needs. The nation-state system is like a traffic light stuck on red. We all recognize the reality of the traffic light and the construct of "stop" and "go" as long as the traffic light is fair or just. Because the individual is innately sovereign, s/he can choose whether to relegate sovereignty to the traffic light, to consider that light as the government, so to speak, as long is it is fair and universal. The moment that we judge that the light is not being fair--that it is stuck on red, we reassert our sovereignty to cross the intersection, while making sure to avoid other traffic. The construct of red, in this example, no longer represents fairness. Each individual is the arbiter of the light's fairness, which is an indication of our unity in sharing this judging capacity.
Humans are waiting for this national red light to turn green. But this eighteenth-century construct will not turn green. Instead, we must exercise our sovereignty to construct a governing system that provides just laws and institutions that incorporate our needs and promote unity within our diversity.
Advancing human sovereignty, rather than national sovereignty, along with human rights is the legal expression of individuals reasserting their sovereignty, as world citizenship is its political expression.
Reves writes, "The creation of institutions with universal sovereign power is merely another phase of the same process in the development of human history--the extension of law and order into another field of human association which heretofore has remained unregulated and in anarchy."
Institutions such as a World Court of Human Rights or a world legislature, various branches of an evolving world government, do not possess universal sovereign power unto themselves. The community--that is, humanity as a whole and individual people as a part--possess sovereign governing power. Reves clarifies that "sovereignty finds expression in institutions but in itself is not and never can be identical with any institution. . . . Institutions derive their sovereignty from where sovereignty resides. . . in democracies--from the people."
Sovereignty is a means to an end, an instrument to create law and order in human relations. However, when individuals vest their sovereignty in national governments, they lose authority over their lives and become responsible to the government rather than to other people. By relegating sovereignty to the nation, people become subjects of the state, rather than citizens with rights and duties to each other and to our parent Earth.
Reves aptly concludes, "Sovereignty of the community and regulation of the interdependence of peoples in society by universal law are the two central pillars upon which the cathedral of democracy rests." Through global sovereignty linked with global law, we can transcend our differences to democratically implement global governmental institutions that respond to our changing needs.
David Gallup is the General Counsel of the World Service Authority.