Redefining State Sovereignty

Globalization is but one facet of how the geopolitical landscape is continuing to change. The Global Issues Matrix page of this Fifty Year Perspective Blog ( is a view of the breadth of concerns facing the contemporary world. Globalization itself has brought to the forefront issues that were scarcely regarded in the past.


Arguably, none of the myriad global issues is as significant as the bedrock question of how nation-states relate to one another. The modern concept of state sovereignty is generally attributed to the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War in Europe. The Peace established state boundaries, with all states being free and equal and having total authority over people and property within their borders.


War did not cease to exist, and in 1863 a group of citizens in Geneva, Switzerland, formed what became the International Committee of the Red Cross to care for the sick and wounded in battle. This led the following year to a treaty among twelve European states that became the Geneva Convention. The idea that humanitarian concerns should be superimposed over the sovereignty of states was thus established.



The position of basic humanitarian values superseding state sovereignty was firmly established when the International Tribunals at Nuremberg and Tokyo brought to trial German and Japanese soldiers responsible for the deaths of millions of civilians during World War Two. The creation of the United Nations in 1945 and its subsequent treaties permanently altered the concept of state sovereignty. UN action on human rights was followed by conventions on the status of refugees, the rights of women, the elimination of racial discrimination, torture, the rights of children, and regulations regarding nuclear, chemical/biological, and conventional weapons.


Expanding on universal concerns, the UN established an on-going series of conferences and treaties addressing environmental problems. Agreements on climate change and sustainability are to culminate in the 21st conference of parties to the convention on climate change to take place in Paris in December 2015 (see\). Not least of the international treaties and organizations establishing standards by which nations are to function are the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund.


While such international agreements are numerous, there is no police authority to enforce every agreement. North Korea’s nuclear weapons, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, or the United States’ refusal to ratify the Kyoto agreement on greenhouse gas emissions, to name a few, do not negate the doctrine that state sovereignty has limits imposed by international order, humanitarian values, and environmental preservation.

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