Many people read my blog post on the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, so I thought Iʻd follow up with a piece on sovereignty. It is descriptive rather than advocacy. Hawaiians and Indigenous peoples have more than one definition of sovereignty. The concept of inherent sovereignty is not clearly elucidated, but essentially refers to the baseline status of being a defined people – a nation. Some ascribe a spiritual dimension to sovereignty. I donʻt deny any of those claims, but I wrote this short piece for my students, and confine myself to the legalistic definition(s) of sovereignty.
Sovereignty is a status that a state achieves under international law that means “no higher authority except God.” It is a European term that eventually became the central operating principle of the international system of nation-states, or “independent states.” The system began in Europe with the treaty of Westphalia in1648. The small, feudal states of what is now Germany were constantly at war with one another, often using “pre-emptive strikes,” or attacks without provocation, to gain security by making sure that their rival would not strike first. This state of affairs was very brutal and the states agreed to create a system that allowed for the respect of each stateÿs sovereignty. Over the centuries more and more states joined this loose system of co-equal (legally, but not necessarily militarily equal) sovereigns.
Originally the term sovereign referred to the King or monarch of a state, who literally embodied the stateÿs sovereignty, that is, their actual physical body represented the sovereign status of the state that they governed. As changes such as the Magna Carta, and the French and American revolutions brought new forms of government, such as constitutional monarchy and republics, the concept of sovereignty remained.
Black’s Law Dictionary defines sovereignty this way:
The supreme, absolute, and uncontrollable power by which any independent state is govern; supreme political authority; paramount control of the constitution and frame of government and its administration; self sufficient source of political power, from which all specific political powers are derived; the international independence of a state, combined with the right and power of regulating its internal affairs without foreign dictation; also a political society, or state, which is sovereign and independent.
Black’s Law Dictionary 4th Edition (1951) page 1568.
Sovereignty vs. Government
While sovereignty is a status that a nation achieves under international law, government is the “organ” that exercises the stateÿs sovereignty. In other words, while sovereignty is the concept or idea that a nation is independent, its government is the body that can act on this sovereign status. Thus, while governments can be overthrown, sovereignty does not necessarily cease when this happens.
The International system
Because there was no authority higher than a sovereign state, the system was based on recognition by other sovereign, or independent states. This system came to be called the “Family of Nations,” which is the international system still in place today. Organizations such as the United Nations, or the older League of Nations, are international organizations — they are not world governments, but consist of states that are recognized within this system.
International law is the law that applies to sovereign states. More precisely, it is the law that exists between (rather than within) these states. Thus, only states, not individuals or groups of people, are subjects of international law.
International law provides some protection to states within the system. These include the duty of non-intervention, which prohibits states from intervening in each otherÿs internal affairs.
This is the system and the protections that Kauikeaouli understood and sought to gain entry into in 1843, and is the basis of the undisputed claim that Hawaii was a fully sovereign state in the nineteenth century.
While Native American tribal nations are called sovereign, based on their independence from the US federal government in the eighteenth century, these entities are not part of the international system. From an international legal perspective, they are semi-autonomous entities within the sovereign United States of America. These nations do not have representatives in the United Nations because of this.
The “Akaka Bill,” or Native Hawaiian Governmental Reorganization Act of 1999 – 2006, was an attempt to gain a similar semi-autonomous status within the US Federal system, and not an attempt to achieve sovereignty in the international system.