April 23, 1999


Kosovo to Pinochet — The Last Act of National Sovereignty Now Being Played Out On the European Stage

EDITOR'S NOTE: Events in the easternmost and western-most points of the European continent, while not directly related, mark the end of the concept of the sovereign nation which has held sway for hundreds of years. Both the events in Kosovo and the extradition of Chile's Augusto Pinochet reveal the power of new, supranational institutions.


By Andrew Reding

Europe invented the concept of absolute national sovereignty. Now, in momentous actions on either end of the continent, it is sweeping it away. That is the wider meaning of both the war over Kosovo and the impending trial of former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Consider Kosovo. From a conventional standpoint, the NATO action makes little sense. It is not geopolitical — the Warsaw Pact is long gone, and Serbia's ties to an enfeebled Russia are not seen as a serious threat by the western alliance. Kosovo does not sit astride any shipping routes, lacks energy or mineral resources — and is of no interest to anyone but the Serbs, who are clinging to old-fashioned notions of national territorial integrity.

That is just the point. What we are witnessing is no less than a conflict over the course of history. Like the drama unfolding in British courtrooms more than a thousand miles away, Kosovo is a signal of the demise of absolute national sovereignty.

And just as absolute monarchy gave way to constitutional or limited monarchy, so absolute national sovereignty is giving way to what one could call constitutional or limited national sovereignty.

In a world of global commerce and communications, nation states are increasingly subject to international political norms. Europe has led the way with the Council of Europe, which holds member countries to the human rights standards codified in the European Convention on Human Rights. Since last year, citizens of European countries have had the power to appeal directly to the European Court of Human Rights whenever they believe their rights have been infringed by their national government. In effect, Europe has a new Supreme Court.

Serbia, which continues to call itself Yugoslavia despite losing almost all of its federated states, is one of the last bastions of twentieth-century nationalism. It has not joined the Council of Europe, and, like General Pinochet in London, refuses to recognize that universal human rights have rights over the interests of nation states and their leaders.

Both Pinochet and Milosevich are fighting an ultimately hopeless battle against the tides of history. Both are defending the principles of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries against the onslaught of the twenty-first. Both have sacrificed thousands of innocent human beings on the altar of national sovereignty, and evoke little sympathy abroad.

It has been a half century since the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the interim, most countries have ratified treaties banning genocide and torture. In Europe and the Americas, most countries have recognized their citizens' right to appeal to international courts.

Cold War fears kept most of these new rules in abeyance. But with the demise of the Soviet Union and the rise of the global economy, international human rights law is being given some teeth. Kosovo marks the first time a broad international alliance has gone to war primarily to enforce these new legal norms. Significantly, action in the Balkans got underway just as the British Law Lords — arguably the most conservative, precedent-bound of all Western courts — voted 6 to 1 to allow the extradition of Gen. Pinochet to Spain to face trial for human rights violations while he was head of state in Chile.

His defense — that he enjoyed sovereign immunity — was categorically rejected on the grounds that the United Nations-sponsored International Covenant Against Torture has been ratified by both Chile and Great Britain, and thus supersedes the principle of national sovereignty.

Does this mean the nation state itself will disappear? By no means. But as international law builds on the basis of treaties, court decisions, and the outcome of international conflicts such as the one over Kosovo, national institutions will increasingly be subjected to international legal checks and balances. In some ways, that is analogous to the already existing relationship between states and provinces in the United States or Canada, and their respective federal supreme courts. States and provinces enjoy a large measure of sovereignty, but that sovereignty is not absolute. It must stay within the bounds of their respective national bills of rights.

The ultimate beneficiary of this arrangement in Canada and the U.S. has been the citizen. Just so, the ultimate beneficiary of limited national sovereignty will be the citizen worldwide, whose fundamental rights will now take precedence over the interests of their national rulers.

Andrew Reding is senior fellow for hemispheric affairs at the World Policy Institute in New York.


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