Human Rights vs. Sovereignty: Whither We Go?

Human Rights vs. Sovereignty: Whither We Go?

Human rights and sovereignty have an intricate relationship. While the international community continues to uphold the principle of sovereignty, the latter continues to be used by state actors as a means to use force on the civilian population, most often by majority groups against minority groups and resulting in the marginalization, killing, or genocide of a group or its members. The response of the international community vis-à-vis these human rights violations remains cold.  The conflictual relationship makes one ask, “Whither we go?”

Conflict and Resilience Research Institute Canada organized a webinar entitled, “Human Rights vs. Sovereignty: Whither We Go?” Here is what you might find interesting regarding the contentious relationship between sovereignty and human rights, with a particular reference to the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar.

Sovereignty vs. Human Rights

Sovereignty impacts human rights; one does not need to go far to explore how this has been done. Examples of Syria, North Korea, and Myanmar are just a few that illustrate how human rights violations continue to take place because the aforementioned states are sovereign.

One of the key elements highlighted by Mr. Saifullah in his take on the notion of sovereignty was that its essence lies in popular will. When the people’s will is ignored, a government loses its legitimacy.

However, the conflict, even when the popular will is concerned, emerges when governments and regimes that violate human rights take recourse to and exploit the notion that may serve to protect human rights, in this case, the popular will.

The leaders take recourse to “otherization” and claim to have the popular will on their side when they violate human rights or the rights of a minority group.

This leads one to ask, “What measures can be taken to strike a balance between human rights and sovereignty where both are upheld and respected?”

One of the measures is an open discussion, particularly in an organization like the United Nations, about sovereignty and what constitutes a boundary that defines the time to act. Dr.Kawser elaborated on how measures to act such as R2P exist but are limited in achieving their objective due to detailed nuances that are open to interpretation. Those loopholes need to be addressed and the only way to do this would be to engage in a constructive dialogue on sovereignty and human rights.

Complicity and Human Rights

This only leads one to wonder how actors, state and non-state, within and without, Myanmar have acted to protect human rights. The response is dismaying, as Saifullah highlights. He maintains that actors, within and without, specifically state actors, have been complicit in human rights violations in Burma because of their vested interests and realpolitik. This is further accompanied by a lack of solid, actionable measures on the part of the international community.

The Bottom Line!

Human rights and sovereignty have an intricate and conflictual relationship with each other. Often sovereignty and national security are used as pretexts for violation of human rights. There needs to be a constructive dialogue to define the boundary that may allow international organizations to act swiftly to preserve human rights. However, given the vested interests and realpolitik of state actors, particularly neighbors, that dialogue seems improbable in the near future.