While the problem of humanization has always, from an
axiological point of view, been humankind’s central problem, it
now takes on the character of an inescapable concern.
— Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1968

In Discourse on Colonialism, Aimé Césaire’s famous polemic against empire and colonization, he makes a bold claim about the nature of the colonial process: “colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word.” In 1955, as Europe and much of the world still lay reeling in the wake of World War II, Césaire appears less fazed: the atrocities of the war were, he declares, simply “the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms… which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the ‘coolies’ of India, and the ‘niggers’ of Africa.” Thus, colonization, Césaire argues, brutalizes colonizers by making them complicit in a system and practice that they themselves ultimately find brutal; all while it devastates the colonized by thrusting upon them the brunt of this brutality.

Regardless of the extent to which one accepts this characterization of colonization, it would be difficult to deny that certain attitudes expressed in Césaire’s work and others like it have been immensely influential. Discourse on Colonialism is regarded as a key text in the body of anti-colonial academia and literature that built up over the 1940s and 50s, and by the 60s had contributed to the erosion of formal empire in most of the world.

As empires disappeared, they were increasingly replaced by the nation-state; a little over half-a-century later – for better or for worse – the latter model remains in the global political imagination as the ‘obvious’ format of social organization (an argument which Professor Bender pointed out in one of his guest GPS lectures last spring). The nation-state, developed in much of the world on the back of the mentioned criticisms of rule over ‘others,’ was arguably an attempt to build a model where that would be far less possible. The ‘sovereignty’ of the nation-state is thus an essential part of the modern international system; any perceived encroachment of a nation’s sovereignty tends to produce highly negative reactions in the global media and on the world stage, while the UN devotes a chapter (VII) of its charter to detailing what will happen in the event of such an encroachment.

In an age where, it might be argued, the social imagination – the ways in which people can or do imagine society – is becoming increasingly globalized, the importance of ‘sovereignty’ is what makes the issue so complex, as groups and nations continue to adapt and re-adapt themselves to such ideas, and such ideas are adapted to the groups and nations. Consider that there are a number of ongoing conflicts related to sovereignty, and any number of claims that the sovereignty of a nation is being impeached by someone else, but rarely (if ever) does the offending nation acknowledge that they are breaching another’s sovereignty. The reason a nation conducts extra-territorial activities is not that it wishes to put an end to the sovereignty of others, and consequently, debates around such scenarios are never limited to just the simple question of whether or not it is right for a nation to have sovereignty: such debates instead extend to questioning the legitimacy of claims for sovereignty, and even to the many definitions of the term ‘sovereignty’ itself.

This series of pieces, therefore, seeks to examine the complexities of national sovereignty in an international context by studying some of the most prominent cases of conflicts over sovereignty today. The intent is to shed light on some of the myriad of factors that play into the idea of and discourse around sovereignty, and the different arguments from which nations draw legitimacy for their claims.

In the quote at the top of the article, Freire invokes what he considers the eternal problem of humanization: how do we live in a way that is truly ‘human’? The anti-colonialists believed that colonialism – perhaps sovereignty’s polar opposite – was inhuman; Césaire called it ‘thingification.’ On one level, the conflicts around sovereignty are jousts of political power; of domination and defiance. But on another, they also represent the playing out a age-old questions (also discussed all through GPS): of how we should, or maybe how we can, live amongst others.


This article was written by Abiral Chitrakar Phnuyal. Send an email to features@oncenturyavenue.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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