Settlers v. Natives

Stephen Sedley

  • Questioning Sovereignty: Law, State and Nation in the European Commonwealth by Neil MacCormick
    Oxford, 210 pp, £40.00, October 2000, ISBN 0 19 826876 9
  • Waitangi and Indigenous Rights: Revolution, Law and Legitimation by F.M. Brookfield
    Auckland, 253 pp, NZ $39.95, November 1999, ISBN 1 86940 184 0

It’s not too hard today to recognise the sovereign individual, supposed master of his fate and captain of his soul, as a sociopath. The idea of the sovereign state, by contrast, still commands intellectual allegiance in spite of evidence that its day is done. This is not to say that states do not continue to exist which both assert and possess the power to determine what happens inside their borders. It is to say that sovereignty no longer furnishes (if it ever did) an adequate account of the distribution of powers by which people are governed. This is as true of the most powerful nation, the United States, where the shadow of states’ rights cuts out (in Hubert Humphrey’s phrase) the sunshine of human rights and fragments the legal and political centralism fundamental to any unitary conception of sovereignty, as it is of the weakest, whose polities and economies are corks on the waves of globalism. The recent establishment of international war crimes tribunals, like the growing question-mark over the ability of regimes to grant themselves or their nastier predecessors amnesties, marks a strong move to qualify national sovereignty in the interests of humanitarian standards; a move tellingly resisted in regard to its own citizens by the United States, whose long-arm jurisdiction is regularly used to try citizens of other states. Frontiers mean increasingly little to those with the physical power to impose their will, and states no longer declare war as a preliminary to invasion. Sovereignty does not come in platonic form, however stridently a state may assert its own or purport to acknowledge others’.

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