The purpose of the United Nations should be to protect the essential sovereignty of nations, large and small.

— Nikita Khruschev

It’s all very well for us to sit here in the West with our high incomes and cushy lives, and say it’s immoral to violate the sovereignty of another state. But if the effect of that is to bring people in that country economic and political freedom, to raise their standard of living, to increase their life expectancy, then don’t rull it out.

— Niall Ferguson

‘We should always fight for the weak against the strong.’ ‘Well then, why don’t we send troops to Afghanistan to fight the Russians?’ ‘The Russians are too strong.’

— Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey Appleby

The sovereignty of states is, in practical terms, little more than a façade — a meaningless ideal that does not reflect the reality that wealthy and powerful states routinely breach both physical and diplomatic borders. Sovereignty is a luxury enjoyed by those states with the ability to defend themselves and their allies against incursions. A consequence of this has been the emergency of a modern vassal state that is required to be subservient to one of a handful of states capable of protecting it against the others, while at the same time making enforcement of human rights rather difficult on a global scale.

Khruschev’s sentiment above is an idealistic perspective of sovereignty: that all states have an autonomy that must be protected. This naïve idealism is reflected in article 2 of the Charter of the United Nations, which prohibits intervention in the domestic affairs of states — subject to a determination of necessity by the Security Council under chapter VII.

United Nations General Assembly (‘UNGA’) Resolution 2131 declared a firmer position that proscribes all forms of interference in the internal and external affairs of states, including, inter alia, the right of states to determine their own form of governance,1 at exactly the same time as the United States was occupying the Dominican Republic and pursuing a policy of anti-communist military interventionism and clandestine political destabilisation.2

The principles of ‘friendly relations’ and ‘non-interference’ would again be restated by Resolution 2625 in 1970,3 with much the same ineffectualness.4 The Soviet Union and United States — both of which are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — demonstrated in the period following UNGA Resolutions 2131 and 2625 a blatant disregard for this sovereignty principle.

One might reasonably conclude that Ferguson’s statement is a more accurate depiction of the true position of sovereignty in international law. It is an attractive proposition to say that the sovereignty of states is inviolable except where incursions are intended to promote human development (economically, socially or politically). For Ferguson, Western dominance is not inherently negative:

The rulers of western Africa prior to the European empires … showed zero sign of developing the country’s economic resources. Did Senegal ultimately benefit from French rule? Yes, it’s clear. And the counterfactual idea that somehow the indigenous rulers would have been more successful in economic development doesn’t have any credibility at all.5

Leaving aside the well-document (and seemingly now axiomatic) atrocities committed as the European states expanded their empires, Ferguson’s ideology does not provide an accurate depiction of the complex issue of breaching sovereignty. While Ferguson appears to support violations of sovereignty to improve the welfare of the population of the violated state, a question remains: who ensures the liberators’ own freedoms?

Sovereignty has not successfully shielded any nation that the United States has invaded (leaving aside the question of whether the motive for invasion was benevolent or otherwise). At the same time, sovereignty has been a shield to justify the United States’ failure to sign or ratify many agreements (generally the only developed country to abstain), including important human rights agreements6 and treaties to protect the environment,7 as well as its refusal to recognise the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.8

No country was able to compel the United States to end the McCarthyist ‘anti-communist’ accusations that threatened freedom of speech, nor to bring a halt to the apartheid-like domestic policies of segregation and racial discrimination.9 On the other side of the Pacific, no state lifted a finger to halt the Cultural Revolution in China that killed more than a million people.10

Possibly the most accurate description of the true operation of sovereignty is to be found in the political satire of Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s Yes, Prime Minister. Prime Minister Jim Hacker declares to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, that Britain should ‘always fight for the weak against the strong’ with regard to defending democracy on the fictional St George’s Island. To this, Sir Humphrey enquires whether Britain should go to war against the Soviet Union, which at the time was occupying Afghanistan. Hacker admits that the Soviets ‘are too strong.’11

This is a frightfully accurate reflection of reality: the strength of the Soviet Union was too great to permit direct intervention by the Western Bloc in defence of Afghanistan’s sovereignty in the 1970s and 1980s. Where did the Soviet Union’s power to defy sovereignty originate?

The arms race began thirty years earlier in 1949; the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapons and the most powerful states rushed to develop larger, more destructive weapons. In 1996 the International Court of Justice would declare (by a narrow majority) that ‘the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law’ except perhaps ‘in an extreme circumstance of self-defence’,12 and Robertson describes the arms race as being ‘in complete defiance of all Hague Conventions this subject.’13

By 1964 all five permanent members of the UN Security Council possessed ‘the bomb.’ No action was taken by the Soviet Union, United Kingdom, France or China to pressure the United States into abandoning nuclear weapons — instead they joined the race towards the prospect of mutually-assured destruction — and no action could be taken by other states who were too weak to impose economic sanctions, too powerless to take military action, and too dependent on the protection of their nuclear state allies to exercise the requisite degree of insubordination.

The arrogance displayed by the members of the Security Council during the Cold War is undeniable. The United Kingdom and France supported and aided the Israeli invasion of Egypt to restore control over the Suez Canal and depose President Nasser.14 This violation of sovereignty was condemned by both the United States and the Soviet Union, forcing the Anglo-French forces to withdraw.15 Apart from cementing the decline of the United Kingdom and France as major world powers, it was ‘a last grasp of colonialism’ by the strong against the weak.16 What gave these powerful nations the right to breach the sovereignty of another nation?

The Suez Crisis was more than the death rattles of western colonialism. It was a symptom of the general abuse of power that these few dominant nations displayed in the period following the establishment of the United Nations. The Charter said one thing and major world powers — both eastern and western — frequently did another.

Hungarian attempts to break free of the communist yoke in 1956 were thwarted by the invasion of the Warsaw Pact, led by the Soviet Union.17 Where was the intervention from the west to support liberty, to protect the weak against the strong? The Soviets proved, as they would two decades later, to be too strong to take on directly. Military action to repel the Soviet invasion was out of the question, making a ‘mockery of the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights’] promise that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government”.’18

Unlike the Soviet Union, the United States’ foreign policy generally preferred covert, arms-length methods of interfering in other states’ domestic policies and undermining national sovereignty. As in Hungary, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was disregarded to depose the left-wing government of Guatemala in 1954. A democratic election returned a socialist government, ‘which confiscated land owned by the United Fruit Company and redistributed it to peasants’.19

This act against American interests led to a CIA-backed deposition; the subsequent military junta returned the land to the United Fruit Company and pursued a domestic policy of torturing and killing dissidents. The United States was not reprimanded for its unauthorised interference, nor was there intervention to enforce human rights or democratic freedoms in a country now firmly within the American sphere of influence.

Cuba and South Africa illustrate, respectively, the advantages of alignment and disadvantages of non-alignment. The multiple (and at times comical) attempts by the United States to overthrow or kill Fidel Castro culminated in a masterful play by the Cuban dictator: an invitation to the Soviet Union to use Cuba as a nuclear missile base.

With Cuba now firmly aligned with the Soviet Union and nuclear weapons within 400 kilometres of the United States mainland, the Americans had to tread very carefully and Cuba’s sovereignty was bolstered. Although the Pentagon advised President Kennedy to attack the missile sites in Cuba, this advice was not taken: ‘The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 came very close to triggering a third world war in which hundreds of millions would have died in a nuclear holocaust. If President Kennedy had taken the advice of the Pentagon … mutual destruction would have been assured.’

On the other hand, South Africa was a non-aligned ‘pariah state’ condemned for its apartheid system by its fellow African countries as well as the Security Council: the Security Council took non-military action against South Africa on a number of occasions (permitted under chapter VII of the United Nations Charter).20 Robertson describes this as being one of the few instances where ‘one widespread and systematic violation of human rights had been found to justify interference in a state’s internal affairs’ (regardless of whether that interference was actually effective).21

While the sovereignty of the nuclear states and their allies was sacrosanct, the non-aligned had to fend for themselves. Had South Africa opened itself up as a nuclear launchpad, this may have played out very differently. The human rights abuses committed under apartheid would have been readily ignored.

When Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Warsaw Pact in 1968 it was not to defend democracy, but to quash the Prague Spring that promised political freedom. (Not that the Soviet Union was ever known to come down on the side of political freedom). The Soviet Union’s ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ claimed that this was merely legitimate (and legal) ‘fraternal military assistance’ in defence of a fellow communist nation’s socialist system.22 Yet again, nothing could or would be done by the rest of the world to protect Czechoslovakia’s right to sovereignty.

The United States was not much better. It served its own ‘strategic or economic interests by invading the … Dominican Republic in 1965’ on the flimsy premise of ‘enforcing a regional rule that communist governments were incompatible with the Inter-American system.’23 Robertson explains:

The behaviour of the superpowers in this era was motivated entirely by national and ideological interests, but some sneaking respect for the idea of international justice required aggression to be dressed in the language of legality. … The best that can be said for Cold War law was that superpowers felt obliged to resort to such fictions, covering up as best they could the atrocities committed by their own allies in order to accuse more loudly the other side.

Sovereignty is perhaps an exception rather than a rule, a problem exacerbated by the United Nations’ contradictory declarations. On the one hand, the United Nations Charter recognises the inviolable sovereignty of its members, but on the other chapter VII authorises the Security Council to take a number of sovereignty-infringing actions to establish peace and security.24

Khrushchev’s view that the United Nations should protect the sovereignty of all its members is not feasible under the United Nations Charter: it permits a handful of states on the Security Council to take action against any other state. Although the Security Council includes non-permanent members (initially six, now ten), the original five nuclear states — the victors of the Second World War — occupy permanent positions and have a power of veto, severely limiting the capacity of the Security Council to intervene in the affairs of these major powers and their allies.25 As Head and Mann acknowledge,

the Security Council has the power to impose binding resolutions on other member states insofar as it has the power to authorise economic sanctions and military intervention. But from the late 1940s to the late 1980s cold war rivalries among the permanent members precluded effective decision and action.

Consequently, the practical effect of the Security Council exceptions are, ironically, to act to a significant degree as de facto protection of the sovereignty of the Security Council and its allies, largely defeating its very purpose. The Security Council cannot take action against its fellow members without enormous risk, or any other powerful nations that might emerge (such as India and Brazil).

The satellite states and vassal states of these powerful nations are also safe: the United States refrained from further attacks on Cuba as a result of its protection by the Soviet Union. Smaller non-aligned states are ripe for the picking, even if they pose no credible threat to global peace and security. Reprimands for unauthorised interference with a nation’s sovereignty are rarely taken against major powers: the Suez Crisis is one of the few instances where undue military action has been chastised. On the other hand, ‘the end of the Cold War … did open up the possibility for effective [Security Council] action [such as] humanitarian military intervention in Somalia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.’26

It is apposite as we come to the end to make some conclusions about the nature of sovereignty within the United Nations system. Firstly, the UNGA recognises a near-inviolable right of states to equal sovereignty against interference in internal or external affairs.27 Secondly, this is subject to the powers of the Security Council to take action against ‘threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression’.28 Thirdly, the Security Council consists of five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) all of which possess significant economic and military capabilities, and ten non-permanent members.29 Fourthly, the five permanent members of the Security Council were the most powerful nations following the Second World War and enjoy a right of veto against the exercise of chapter VII powers.30 Fifthly, the Security Council will not authorise action against its own members nor its allies, except in the absence of those members likely to object; the authorisation of force against North Korea was only possible because of the absence of North Korea’s two major allies — the Soviet Union was boycotting proceedings and the fifth permanent seat was at the time occupied by the exiled government of the Republic of China based in Taiwan.31 And finally, the only viable targets are those that are not protected by a member of the Security Council or similarly powerful state or bloc.

‘… and that’s why nine out of ten small countries choose American defence.’32

  1. United Nations Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention in the Domestic Affairs of States and the Protection of Their Independence and Sovereignty, GA Res 65/2131, UN GAOR 20th sess, 1480th plen mtg, UN Doc A/RES/20/2131 (21 December 1965).

  2. Geoffrey Robertson, Crimes Against Humanity (Penguin, 4th ed, 2014) 53–8.

  3. Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United States, GA Res 25/2625, UN GAOR, 25th sess, 1883rd plen mtg, UN Doc A/RES/25/2625 (24 October 1970).

  4. Robertson, above n 2, 55-6.

  5. William Skidelsky, ‘Niall Ferguson: “Westerns don’t understand how vulnerable freedom is”’, The Guardian (online), 20 February 2011 <>

  6. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, opened for signature 16 December 1966, 993 UNTS 3 (entered into force 3 January 1976); Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, opened for signature 18 December 1979, 1249 UNTS 13 (entered into force 3 September 1981); Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, opened for signature 6 October 1999, 2131 UNTS 83 (entered into force 22 December 2000); Convention on the Rights of the Child, opened for signature 20 November 1989, 1577 UNTS 3 (entered into force 2 September 1990); Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, opened for signature 16 December 1966, 999 UNTS 171 (entered into force 23 March 1976); Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty, opened for signature 15 December 1989, 1642 UNTS 414 (entered into force 11 July 1991).

  7. United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, opened for signature 10 December 1982, 1833 UNTS 3 (entered into force 16 November 1994), Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, opened for signature 11 December 1997, 2303 UNTS 162 (entered into force 15 February 2005).

  8. Statute of the International Criminal Court, opened for signature 17 July 1998, 2187 UNTS 3 (entered into force 1 July 2002).

  9. Robertson, above n 2, 53.

  10. Ibid.

  11. ‘A Victory for Democracy’, episode 6 of series 1 of _Yes, Prime Minister (Directed by Sydney Lotterby, BBC, first broadcast 13 February 1986) 00:09:36.

  12. Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons (Advisory Opinion) [1986] ICJ Rep 226.

  13. Robertson, above n 2, 52.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Ibid 53.

  19. Ibid.

  20. See, eg, SC Res 134, UN SCOR, 15th sess, 856th mtg, UN Doc S/RES/133 (1 April 1960); SC Res 181, UN SCOR, 18th sess, 1056th mtg, UN Doc S/RES/181 (7 August 1963); SC Res 282, UN SCOR, 25th sess, 1549th mtg, UN Doc S/RES/282 (23 July 1970); SC Res 418, UN SCOR, 32nd sess, 2046th mtg, UN Doc S/RES/418 (4 November 1977); SC Res 591, UN SCOR, 35th sess, 2723rd mtg, UN Doc S/RES/591 (28 November 1986).

  21. Robertson, above n 2, 58.

  22. Ibid 57–8.

  23. Ibid 57.

  24. Michael Head and Scott Mann, Law in Perspective: Ethics, Society and Critical Thinking (UNSW Press, 2nd, 2009) 191.

  25. Ibid.

  26. Ibid.

  27. Charter of the United Nations art 2; United Nations Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention in the Domestic Affairs of States and the Protection of Their Independence and Sovereignty, GA Res 65/2131, UN GAOR, 20th sess, 1408th plen mtg, UN Doc A/RES/20/2131 (21 December 1965); Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, GA Res 25/2625, UN GAOR, 25th sess, 1883rd plen mtg, UN Doc A/RES/25/2625 (24 October 1970).

  28. Charter of the United Nations ch VII arts 39–51.

  29. Charter of the United Nations art 23.

  30. Charter of the United Nations art 27.

  31. SC Res 82, UN SCOR, 5th sess, 473rd mtg, UN Doc S/RES/82 (25 June 1950); SC Res 83, UN SCOR, 5th sess, 474th mtg, UN Doc S/RES/83 (27 June 1950); SC Res 84, UN SCOR, 5th sess, 476th mtg, UN Doc S/RES/84 (7 July 1950); SC Res 85, UN SCOR, 5th sess, 479th mtg, UN Doc S/RES/85 (31 July 1950); SC Res 88, UN SCOR, 5th sess, 520th mtg, UN Doc S/RES/88 (8 November 1950).

  32. And Now for Something Completely Different (Directed by Ian MacNaughton, Columbia Pictures, 1971) 00:36:00.