What is Sovereignty?

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.

Senator Daniel Akaka, author of the Akaka Bill

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “What is Sovereignty?

  1. “Attacks without provocation, to gain security by making sure that their rival would not strike first.”
    – This is a very Hobbesian statement.

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  2. Yes it is true that most time the use of the word “Sovereignty” is a euphemism for limited autonomy. All American Indians that are federally recognized suffer this description. Since Hawaii was never “Overthrown” it has its own continuity with its sovereignty. A breech of treaty and boarders does not remove that highest authority to self govern. But sovereignty is never given back, it has to be taken back and supporting those who are exercising Hawaiian sovereignty wouldn’t hurt.
    Kai Landow
    Vice Consul
    Hawaiian Embassy in New York

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    • Leina'ala

      Why would a nation have to be “given back” or take back something they already have? It is statements like this that are confusing people.

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  3. kealii8

    Sovereignty.

    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.

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  4. The focus of this article is very much national and international. I agree that all “sovereign indigenous territories” that are granted UNDER legislation of a nation-state are in reality subservient and therefore not sovereign by definition. Indeed, often the creation of these entities is used to dis-empower lawfully sovereign peoples through their acceptance of representation and thereby settlement for benefits for their sovereignty itself. It is important to remember that the grantor of a benefit or title also has the power to remove or modify such. In New Zealand these entities are called: Runungas posing as traditional Iwi.

    An analysis of the construct of the word “Sovereign” gives a big clue as to its real meaning: reigns-over. This poignant simplification perhaps explains why sovereign movements based on indigenous ways in society is gaining momentum across the racial divide. It is evident that territories led by corporatist values are despoiling the environment and disrespecting the inherent rights of individual, familial, communal and even national interests. Many of these decisions fly in the face of common sense and people are rightfully asking “is there a better way?”. These inherent rights and interests could also be called “sovereignty” of Man, family and community.

    The interplay between state sovereignty as defined by political will (legislation) in conflict with an individuals free will, a families personal affairs and a communities local lore is defined by:
    1 – the common law (jury decisions either ratifying legislation or striking it down regardless of whether a person actually transgressed the legislation)
    2 – The supremacy of legitimacy
    3 – Force of will.

    What we are finding is that nation-states are claiming supreme legitimacy in de-facto to the express will of the people. It is a fact of natural law that the people can decide for themselves as dejure sovereigns. There are many hurdles placed in front of the people to prohibit the unified expression of their will most significant of which is misleading information, legislated parameters and mal-education.

    Yet these decisions are being made increasingly in self defined local areas which is interesting because this is how things were done in the majority of indigenous societies. Issues like corporate personhood, fracking, mining and genetically modified foods affect everyone and nation-states are quite open in their desire to foist these upon communities.

    Indeed this provides impetus for people to uphold the true principle of democracy and make decisions based on popularity locally. As local communities and individuals stand more firmly on their rights it is to be expected that nation-states will apply force of will in an attempt by those in authority to retain the power of consent over others.

    The human mind has an amazing capacity to overcome adversity and as more people wake up to the necessity for change, in favor of common sense, even the onslaught of state-corporate-representative suppression will pale in comparison to the power of popular will.

    “Just by fighting them, we won something. When just one man says, ‘No, I won’t,’ Rome begins to fear. And we were tens of thousands who said no. That was the wonder of it. To have seen slaves lift their heads from the dust, to see them rise from their knees, stand tall, with a song on their lips.” – Spartacus

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    • You make an interesting point and it makes me think of a discussion I had with my colleagues. All of these things like “States”, Sovereignty, peoples or rights are products of our minds. As groups of people we decide the essence of there conceptual bodies. We can change our minds, adapt, add or start new. Or we can abandon old failing regimes for new ones that work for our own survival. We can as people change the game at any time. Ho’omakaukau

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  5. Kyle Kajihiro

    Thanks for this concise explanation of the concept of sovereignty. I just wanted to add a few points to this rich discussion:

    The concept of sovereignty has evolved over time. As you point out, it originates from the idea that a nationʻs independence and legitimacy derived from the divine authority of its monarch. But over time sovereignty has come to be understood in the international community as deriving from the will of the people to constitute an independent state.

    Parallel to this development is the emergence of the concept of universal human rights. There is now a general consensus in the international community that in certain circumstances, considerations of human rights supersede the sovereignty of any particular nation and allow for international intervention in a sovereign country to enforce human rights.

    A practical expression of the co-evolving ideas of sovereignty and human rights is the emergence of “self-determination” as an universal human right of all peoples. In theory this means that a people sharing a particular history, culture, territory, social organization and identity as a nation can freely determine their own political status.

    But as Hardt and Negri point out the very nature of sovereignty has transcended the nation-state and constitutes a global network form of power and control: Empire. This has both facilitated and been countered by network forms of resistance, such as the Arab Spring and Occupy movements.

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