Reflections on Sovereignty



By Rohini Hensman       

(Courtesy: Lakbimanews of 3 February 2008)

The people need to possess fundamental and democratic rights

On the sixtieth anniversary of Independence, it is useful to reflect on what is meant by the ‘sovereignty’ so raucously defended by the PNM. In Political Science, sovereignty is defined as having an internal aspect - the right of a state to take certain actions within its territory - and an external aspect, namely recognition of this right by other states. The two are interlinked, and both are necessary for a state to function. For example, if the LTTE declared the North-East to be a separate state of Tamil Eelam, but the sovereignty of that state was not recognised by other states, it would not have sovereignty. Sri Lanka’s sovereignty too depends on international recognition.

After the carnage of World War II, both the internal and external dimensions were modified. The Nazi genocide spurred a recognition that there were limits to what a state could do legally even within its own borders: certain crimes committed by the state, such as genocide, had to be punished. This did not in any way legitimise aggression, which was also defined as a crime. We might take, as an analogy, the family. So long as no crimes are committed within a family, neither the state nor anyone else has a right to interfere. But if, for example, the man is beating his wife and children, the neighbours and/or police have not only a right but a duty to intervene, and if he injures or kills a member of the family he can be tried, convicted, and put in jail.  

This is what Louise Arbour was saying about what is going on in Sri Lanka: it is legitimate to fight against armed terrorists, but if the state commits crimes against unarmed civilians, these constitute war crimes and/or crimes against humanity, for which those who command the security forces committing those crimes can be hauled up before an international criminal court, as in the case of the former Yugoslavia. She is absolutely right: possession of state power is not a license to commit mass murder, rape and torture with impunity, nor should it be.            

The external aspect of sovereignty was also modified, with states pooling their sovereignty in international bodies, especially the UN, in the hope of preventing future wars. The UN has not been particularly successful in this, for a variety of reasons including domination by the US and the veto powers enjoyed by permanent members of the Security Council. Yet the world would be an even worse place for the weak and vulnerable in the absence of the UN. If the PNM is serious in its allegations that Louise Arbour and other UN officials working for human rights are international terrorists supporting the LTTE, it should demand that the Government cut off its links with the UN and other countries that voice similar criticisms. Of course, the Government will never do this, and for very good reasons.

It is largely thanks to the UN, other human rights organisations and the very countries the PNM fulminates against that the LTTE has suffered its recent setbacks; it is because they have recognised the LTTE’s human rights abuses and proceeded to penalise it in various ways that it now lacks the arms and ammunition to inflict far greater damage on government forces.

PNM leaders have big mouths, but they have done nothing to defeat the LTTE. If they carry out their threat to attack UN offices in Sri Lanka, it could spur a backlash which leaves the Government isolated internationally. It can even be argued that Sinhala nationalists have helped the LTTE by confirming its allegations that Tamils lack sovereignty in Sri Lanka and therefore need a separate state; similar behaviour by Serb nationalists has resulted in bringing Kosovo to the brink of independence.

What kind of Sovereignty?

The word ‘sovereignty’ is derived from the sovereign monarch, the absolute ruler in times gone by. A state ruled in similar fashion today would be regarded as a dictatorship. A democracy, on the contrary, is a state where sovereignty is understood to reside in the people; thus the constitution of Sri Lanka, despite its faults, proclaims that ‘sovereignty is in the people’ (N.B. ‘the people’ - i.e. ALL the people - not the majority). In order to exercise their sovereignty, the people (all the people) need to possess fundamental human and democratic rights, without which they become oppressed victims rather than sovereign rulers. Thus, in offering to establish a UN mission to monitor and protect human rights in Sri Lanka, Louise Arbour is in fact offering to protect the sovereignty of the people of Sri Lanka.              

Of course, we know that the leaders of the JVP/PNM have a very different conception of sovereignty. Wimal Weerawansa asks where the UN was during the bheeshanaya of the late 1980s, and it is indeed true that in those years the state massacred tens of thousands of Sinhalese, mostly unarmed civilians. But has Weerawansa forgotten the role played by the JVP itself in the bheeshanaya? Threatening workers to go on strike or be killed; telling sick people to refrain from buying Indian-made medicines or be killed, even if they were too poor to afford anything else; killing families of the rural poor who had joined the security forces: this was the ‘liberation’ they offered the people of Sri Lanka.
The JVP’s notion of sovereignty is a state where anyone who disagrees with it can be silenced.      

This is exactly the same as the sovereignty sought by the LTTE, which also claims to offer ‘liberation’ to the Tamil people. Thank you, but no thank you. We, the people of Sri Lanka, are not willing to give up our fundamental rights. Sixty years after Independence, it is time for us to fight against Sinhalese and Tamil nationalists alike to reclaim OUR sovereignty.