Sovereignty comes with responsibility

HARARE - Sovereignty as a concept has its roots in the Treaty or Peace of Westphalia, so named because it was signed in a Germany city of that name on October 24, 1648.

Without going into its history, the Westphalian Treaty reposed total control of territory with fixed populations on states, without external interference.

In this country, sovereignty has been invoked iteratively since independence within this absolutist Westphalian context.

On Thursday, Zimbabwe commemorates its independence.

No doubt, the lexicon of sovereignty in such absolute terms will suffuse the official scripts.

However, Westphalian sovereignty is now an outmoded concept.

Following Adolf Hitler’s predation during the Second World War, doubts began to emerge whether the classical sovereignty of entrusting rulers with the safeguarding safety and welfare their own people was a wise idea.

The Nuremberg and Tokyo trials which followed the Second World War signalled the early doubts, if not a shift from the Westphalian concept.

The domestic laws of Germany and Japan could not suffice in dealing with atrocities of certain magnitude.

The UN Charter of 1945, while asserting the juridical sovereignty of States, took similar cognisance by introducing caveats allowing intervention in States in certain circumstances.

The interventions in the former Yugoslavia and more recently Libya, for example, only serve to demonstrate the erosion of such absolutist doctrine of State sovereignty since then.

The notable characteristic of international law is that it has “internationalised” the human being. No longer is the human being the property of individual states.

Under the new paradigm, the State will be regarded as sovereign if it acts responsibly and safeguards the safety, life and welfare of its citizens.

A State that neglects such primary duty forfeits its sovereignty.

If a State cannot protect its own people, that duty is transferred to the international community.

Given the force of these new realities, it is nonsensical to still parrot the old precepts of absolute sovereignty. No longer is State conduct immune from international scrutiny, or even from sanction.

Former colonies like Zimbabwe have sought absolute sovereignty as compensation for the invasiveness of colonialism.

Thus, Zanu PF has remained locked in the archaism of Westphalian sovereignty, drawing frequently on a liberationist narrative.

But unchecked sovereignty has proved too dangerous a weapon to be left entirely in the hands of rulers. In its reincarnation, sovereignty no longer premised on the simple ownership of territory and the presiding over a fixed population without outside interference in certain circumstances.
The “new sovereignty” is now premised on the internationalised human being, how States treat those human beings, inviting external interference when such human beings are abused.

Zanu PF is demonstrably an archaic party of old men and women driven by old-fashioned ideas.

The version of sovereignty that it desires can be synonymised with a man who batters his spouse black and blue, yelling at his neighbours not to interfere because it’s his wife.

Even at level, such abuse of “domestic” sovereignty invites the intervention of law enforcement agents or even disagreeable neighbours within that community.

Nationally, such type of sovereignty means Gukurahundi, Murambatsvina, murder of farmers and opposition members, and fiddling with electoral processes.

If left to their own devices, we risk abuse, harm and decimation by predatory State actors. The change in the concept of sovereignty is, therefore, to be welcomed.

The intervention of the African Union, Sadc and the imposition of measures against Zimbabwe by the EU and US illustrate that rulers can longer exercise absolute sovereignty that allows them to act against their own people without consequences.

As Zimbabwe celebrates its independence on Thursday, Zanu PF will need to be reminded of new realities; that the Westphalian model of sovereignty was conceptualised as far back as 1648.

The world has since changed; Westphalia is now a remodelled artefact stripped of its previous rigidity.

External interference is now a dynamic of the new order, no matter how much Zanu PF may loathe it.
Even emotion around a venerated struggle cannot alter these sweeping realities. If Zanu PF despises outside interference — whether by Sadc or the EU — the solution is simple.

Exercise sovereignty with responsibility, putting the rights, welfare and security of citizens first. Absolute sovereignty is dead. - Conrad Nyamutata

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