The People’s Sovereignty

How a new twist on an old idea can protect the world's most vulnerable populations.

Sovereignty is an anachronistic concept originating in bygone times when society consisted of rulers and subjects, not citizens. It became the cornerstone of international relations with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. During the French Revolution, the king was overthrown and the people assumed sovereignty. But a nationalist concept of sovereignty soon superseded the dynastic version. Today, though not all nation-states are democratically accountable to their citizens, the principle of sovereignty stands in the way of outside intervention in the internal affairs of nation-states.

But true sovereignty belongs to the people, who in turn delegate it to their governments. If governments abuse the authority entrusted to them and citizens have no opportunity to correct such abuses, outside interference is justified. By specifying that sovereignty is based on the people, the international community can penetrate nation-states’ borders to protect the rights of citizens. In particular, the principle of the people’s sovereignty can help solve two modern challenges: the obstacles to delivering aid effectively to sovereign states, and the obstacles to global collective action dealing with states experiencing internal conflict.

External aid does not necessarily interfere with the sovereignty of states; governments can take aid or leave it. Having spent nearly $5 billion in such assistance over the years, I have experienced all the pitfalls that beset foreign aid. In 1984, I established the first national foundation inside Communist Hungary, followed by national foundations in some 32 additional nations. These foundations have been operating with total annual budgets averaging around $450 million for the last decade.

Although offers of external assistance do not undermine state sovereignty, foreign aid should not flow through national governments alone but should also support local governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Democratic governments should not object to aid directed at such groups. But precisely those governments that do not qualify for official assistance tend to oppose these nongovernmental channels. Such objections make a prima facie case that those regimes are violating the people’s sovereignty; thus, the case for supporting civil society grows even stronger.

That principle has guided my network of foundations. In every country, we create a local board of citizens and channel our support through it. These boards work with the government when possible; where they cannot, they confine their support to civil society and resist state interference. So far, the foundations have successfully fought repression because governments are loath to publicly crack down on organizations that serve the interests of the people. Consider what happened in Yugoslavia toward the end of the Slobodan Milosevic era: Despite outlawing my foundation, Belgrade never enforced the decision, which allowed the foundation to continue operating.

Outside governments and international aid organizations are in a much stronger position than private foundations to resist governmental meddling in assistance directed to ngos. Even the most repressive regimes seek to maintain the fiction that they have the people’s interest at heart, leaving themselves susceptible to diplomatic disapproval. Although external pressure can be counterproductive — the land issue in Zimbabwe touched a nerve with the African public, and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe deflected widespread international disapproval by posing as a warrior against colonial oppression — a suitable pressure point can often be found. For instance, when Egyptian authorities jailed democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim in 2000 for, among other charges, accepting unauthorized foreign financial support, the United States retaliated by freezing a supplemental aid package to the country. The Egyptian Court of Cessation eventually acquitted Ibrahim in March 2003, reaffirming freedom of speech and freedom to receive funds from abroad.

Since armed conflicts and repressive regimes may pose dangers beyond the borders of the countries concerned, all democratic nations have an interest in overcoming collective action problems and promoting open societies all over the world. The earlier preventive action begins, the less costly and more effective it is likely to be. For example, in the former Yugoslavia, early outside pressure on Milosevic — either when he abolished the autonomy of Kosovo in 1990 or when the Yugoslav navy bombarded Dubrovnik a year later — could have averted the tragedies that befell the region over the next decade.

The Baltic states, particularly Latvia and Estonia, provide a positive example of conflict prevention. These states were forcibly integrated into the Soviet Union in 1940; much of the local population was deported and other nationalities brought in. When the Baltics regained their independence in 1991, they struggled with a strong impulse to deny citizenship rights to members of these other nationalities. Such mistreatment of the sizeable Russian populations within these countries could have provided Russia with a compelling excuse for armed intervention, but the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union pressured the Baltic states to guarantee minorities legal rights and protections. My foundations (among others) provided language instruction and supported other forms of ethnic reconciliation. A potential crisis was defused.

Unfortunately, though, a non-crisis makes no headlines. As things stand now, conditions must deteriorate significantly before foreign governments are willing to take a firm stand. But by the time gruesome television images provoke outrage in Western audiences, it will be too late to prevent a crisis. And as crises multiply, the public becomes less responsive, allowing dangerous situations to fester. The tardy U.S. intervention in Liberia is typical.

Of course, predicting which grievances will develop into bloodshed is impossible; the most effective preventive action reduces the potential for crises to develop in the first place. The best way to accomplish this goal is by fostering open, democratic societies. That has been the objective of my foundations since before the disintegration of the Soviet empire. It must be pursued on a larger scale.

That pursuit brings us back to a reconsideration of the principle of sovereignty. As U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has stated, "state sovereignty, in its most basic sense, is being redefined — not least by the forces of globalisation and international co-operation. States are…instruments at the service of their peoples, and not vice versa." Indeed, the rulers of a sovereign state have a responsibility to protect the state’s citizens. When they fail to do so, the responsibility is transferred to the international community. Global attention is often the only lifeline available to the oppressed.