Turning sovereignty into a dirty word

THE sovereignty of a nation is almost sacrosanct. I say “almost” because there are leaders who have abused this status.

In the most recent examples of the savaging of this decent concept, leaders insisted it was their business and theirs’ alone to slaughter thousands of their people — for opposing their rule, even peacefully.

Fortunately, in both the Ivory Coast and Libya, the world decided it could not stand idly by while this butchery continued.

In the last case, it was the North Atlantic Treaty Oganisation (Nato), whose members include former colonialists.

Nato, in accordance with Security Council Resolution 1973, protected civilians from attacks by Muammar Gadaffi’s rampaging forces.

Nato’s action was crucial in Gadaffi’s defeat. All these events had the effect of frightening all African leaders of Gadaffi’s ilk — that it was “nobody’s business” what they did to their people in their country.

If they belong to the UN, then they have to answer to that organisation, whose members also include former colonial powers.

Lauren Gbagbo, the loser in a recent election in the Ivory Coast, must feel bitter against the entire UN.

It was primarily that organisation’s action which eventually led to his capture as he hid in a bunker — a la Adolf Hitler.

He had refused to step aside to let Alasane Outtara claim the presidency.

This led to so much needless bloodletting.

African leaders were infuriated by that UN action — not surprisingly: they insisted Gbagbo ought to have been allowed his “sovereign” right to claim victory.

They felt the Ivory Coast’s sovereignty had been violated.

Sovereignty entails the country’s integrity, its right to determine its every action, virtually its destiny, in relation to the rest of the world.

If the sovereignty of a nation is violated, there has to be a valid reason for this.

If it has invaded another country and cannot justify this under international law, it may be deemed to have endangered its sovereignty.

In almost all conflicts between states, it is in defence of its sovereignty that one country goes to war against another.

But in Libya, there were questions relating to the life and death of innocent, unarmed civilians. Gadaffi declared “we shall show no mercy” to Libyans opposing his regime.

“Showing no mercy” translated into killing them on sight — almost.

Libya is an independent sovereign state. For 42 years, it was a sovereign state run by one man.

Its membership of the UN was never in danger.

The UN Charter provides for economic sanctions against offending member states — applied against the illegal regime of Rhodesia and the apartheid regime in South Africa.

What many critics may find vexatious is the situation in which the UN fails to act against a country which pursues a system of government which defies conventional interpretation under UN rules.

Not once, during his entire reign, did Gadaffi hold anything resembling free and fair elections.

He used The Green Book, which some people believe he tried to fashion after The Little Red Book of You-Know-Who.

It is the calculation of many critics that, considering how both men ended up, these tomes on their political theories did not amount to a can of beans.

Security Council Resolution 1973 raised the stakes, in a manner of speaking. In many ways, it went for the jugular, where others were a rap on the knuckles or a spanking on the behind.

No wonder many African members, including South Africa, were critical of 1973.

Although it called for the protection of civilians against attacks by the Gadaffi forces, the African critics insisted the Nato “no fly zone” operations amounted to a UN-sponsored regime change.

Yet that strategy made a difference, Gadaffi had no answer to it.

What ought to worry many African leaders is whether it is worth it to kill so many of their unarmed citizens for nebulous “national” reasons.

By now, most Africans must know that the awesome power some of their leaders wield can turn them into stark, raving lunatics.

What is it — the prospect of losing all that illicit wealth, of spending years in jail, or of being shot in the head by an anonymous citizen, not even a trained soldier, for that matter, but a market vendor?

In this case, sovereignty becomes a dirty word — fit to be dipped into stain-removing liquid to cleanse it.

 Bill Saidi is a veteran writer based in Harare

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