Sovereignty not a moral shield

By Andrew L. Urban.

We must respect the sovereignity of other states as we expect them to respect ours, goes the argument against criticism of Indonesia’s death penalty for drug smugglers. Really? Is that like a blanket cone of silence to be applied to criticism of all countries that have laws that, to the most of us in the Judeochristian West, are clearly against moral principles of humanity?

If so, it would be not only new but tragically misguided.

Loathsome laws that see women stoned to death for adultery or laws that shield men from rape trials are just a couple of examples that spring to mind where the sovereignity of the state should be no shield against moral outrage. Rogue states – even if we trade with them – that oppress their citizens should not be beyond our stringent criticism.

The moral selectivity behind the notion of sovereign state has been a confounding and ongoing hinderance to the pursuit of human decency around the world. Who knows what the Western democracies really stand for if forever sidestepping or ignoring abuses? It is moral selectivity that drives a wedge between friends when faced with a common enemy. Oh, we cant judge whats right for the people of Zombieland … No, not in matters of society, but yes in matters of humanity and morality. We know, for instance, that there is no credible defence for murder. Killing a human being can’t be right in one circumstance and wrong in another. (Let’s leave the contentious matter of abortion aside; it is rather more complex a debate that would take us in a different direction.)

Nor is it essential to export Western style democracy to every corner of the globe to achieve universal agreement on fundamental humanitarian principles. It already exists on paper in at least one form, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, except it isn’t much use if not implemented nor enforced.

It is not grandstanding to urge the adoption of humanitarian principles on sovereign states, any more than it is grandstanding to insist they do not torture, gas or oppress their citizens. And yet, we do nothing, and those who raise their voices to admonish states that act against those basic human principles are often portrayed as having a superiority complex, a disdain for other societies. But that is actually the opposite of what those voices represent: they do not condone the lack of human principles on the grounds that those sovereign states might have different values.

In these matters, there are no acceptable different values. We must insist on that.

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