An interesting debate that has arisen out of the recent crisis in Egypt has been the issue of national sovereignty versus common responsibility. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and the NDP elite in Egypt claimed that they resented foreign interference in the affairs of a sovereign state, Egypt. Having heard the same argument being used by other African leaders who refuse to relinquish power whilst brutalising their citizens, such as: Robert Mugabe, Laurent Gbagbo, Sani Abacha etc, I began to wonder whether national sovereignty should always take precedence over our common responsibility to each other as human beings.
I was reminded of Bosnia in the 1990s and the brutality of the likes of Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbs against Bosnian Muslims and Croats. What would have happened if the international community had decided to respect Serbia and Bosnia’s sovereignty and left them alone to brutalise, murder and annihilate innocent Bosnian Muslim and Croat citizens? Surely there is some level of responsibility on the international community to intervene when you have a regime or political leadership that is brutalising innocent civilians, which transcends national sovereignty? It would appear to me that once a government has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of its people, then the international community has some responsibility to intervene to see that justice is done and the will of the people is upheld, even if it goes beyond the realms of upholding the principle of national sovereignty.
It was this respect for sovereignty which allowed the international community to stand by and watch whilst over eight hundred thousand Tutsis and moderate Hutus were being murdered in Rwanda. It is the same “respect” for sovereignty which has allowed Africa and the world to stand by whilst dictators such as Robert Mugabe and company have run amok, murdering innocent civilians and ruling with impunity. There has to be a point where our common responsibility to each other as human beings overrides the principle of sovereignty.
In my view the principle of legitimacy before the people, should be more important than the principle of sovereignty. If a government has lost its legitimacy before its own people and yet refuses to heed the voice of the people, there must be some kind of mechanism which will allow the international community to step in and see to it that the will of the people is upheld even at the expense of national sovereignty, at least on a temporary basis. Otherwise we are guilty of aiding and abetting tyrants, sycophants, autocrats and dictators in brutalising their citizens through our passivity. I am aware that this is all open to abuse, like all things human, but the alternative is to sit around and do nothing whilst tyranny rules, and that for me is unacceptable.