Understanding sovereignty

Published November 20, 2011

WELL, this is awkward. At the same time that the Pakistani public and political elite were clamouring for the country’s national sovereignty to be defended against American adventurism, someone was slipping a memo to Adm Mike Mullen inviting US interference in Pakistan’s domestic affairs.

This latest example of ‘via Washington’ politics once again raises questions about just how sovereign our state really is, and provides a good opportunity to interrogate the Pakistani understanding of the concept of sovereignty.

As many have already pointed out, the actual details of ‘memogate’ remain fuzzy. The story as it is now playing out in the media contains too many logical fallacies and offers few insights into the plausible motivations of the different players who may or may not have been involved. But thanks to Mullen’s spokesperson and the scoop-ready Foreign Policy blog, The Cable, we know that someone sent a memo to the former chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff. That means someone with a stake in Pakistan’s political set-up thought that Mullen was in a better position to negotiate the fragile balance of Pakistan’s civil and military spheres than anyone inside the country.

Notably, the memo offers to barter aspects of Pakistan’s security and foreign policies with Washington in exchange for political interference, thereby circumventing the process whereby such policies are debated in parliament or generated through public consensus. As such, memogate is a clear example of a sovereignty violation waiting to happen. The sovereignty aspect of the memo fiasco was further highlighted by the fact that at the same time that accusations and denials were flying in Washington, former Sindh home minister Zulfikar Mirza was in London handing over documents containing apparently incriminating evidence against the MQM to Scotland Yard. According to news reports, the documents pertained both to the Imran Farooq murder case and the ongoing ethno-political violence in Karachi. In other words, here was another example of a Pakistani inviting international intervention in Pakistan’s internal security affairs.

It’s not rocket science to figure out that these two acts can be considered violations of Pakistan’s national sovereignty; after all, Nawaz Sharif was one of the first to call for a commission to investigate memogate, stating that such an effort was necessary to protect the country’s sovereignty.

But before the right-winged, ghairat-obsessed start baying for blood, it is worth considering what sovereignty means in Pakistan and to what extent it has been compromised by the abovementioned actions.

By simple dictionary definitions, sovereignty is the quality of having independent authority over a geographic area, and having the legitimacy to exert that authority. In a democratic set-up, the state derives that legitimacy from the citizens. In other words, governments are the trustees — not the proprietors — of sovereignty. Since a state derives its legitimacy from its ability to work in the best interests of the public, a state that cannot serve its people cannot be considered sovereign.

Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan put it best: “States are now widely understood to be instruments at the service of their peoples, and not vice versa.” Given the many failings of the Pakistan government and its demonstrated inability to serve its people, one could argue that the state has lost its claim to sovereignty. This reading then begs the question: how can an external actor violate or compromise something that never really existed? And more pertinently, does it constitute a violation when it is members of the state itself that threaten to subvert sovereignty?

Granted, these questions may be too conceptual to be useful. But those who hanker after inviolable sovereignty should ponder the following question: in an increasingly interdependent, globalising world, what are the limits of national sovereignty? Pakistan, like many other countries, subscribes to transnational legislation, conventions and agreements that coexist with or supersede domestic law and practice. These, in the opinion of many political scholars, pose the true challenge to national sovereignty in the 21st century.

When it works to its advantage, Pakistan regularly solicits international political and economic interference in ways that are rarely deemed violations of national sovereignty.

Consider these few examples: the government’s invitation to the UN to investigate Benazir Bhutto’s assassination; the political call for those involved in drone strikes to be tried for war crimes in international courts; the willingness to work with IFCs and permit economic oversight mechanisms; the invitation to international donors to help manage humanitarian disasters with the understanding that the government will comply with their accountability protocols.

In this context, it begins to seem as if the popular understanding of sovereignty in Pakistan is far more simplistic — a matter of territorial integrity and inviolable borders rather than a subtle appreciation of an authority earned as a consequence of serving the people. By the more blunt definition, memogate and Mirza’s Scotland Yard visit also do not threaten sovereignty.

Unfortunately for Pakistan, the world has a nuanced and multifaceted understanding of national sovereignty. Other countries cannot be expected to take our state’s flirtation with the concept seriously. At times, we thump righteous fists in defence of a concept we barely understand or value. At other times, we are the first to subvert our own sovereignty and invite international interference in uniquely Pakistani matters. These sovereignty mood swings cannot substitute for well-considered and consensual national policies regarding the extent to which outside interference of any variety is acceptable, and what consequences should befall those who push the limits. As a country, it is high time we took stock of a concept that we are so fond of championing.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

huma.yusuf@gmail.com

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