Origins and use:
According to the principle of sovereign equality, which was written into the UN Charter of 1945, all states are equal before international law no matter the size of their territory, population, economy or military. States are also, in principle, in control over affairs within their borders and are protected against undue interference from the outside.
The principle itself is long-standing and accepted in international law. However, what it means in practice has changed over time and in line with growing international obligations, certainly with regard to human rights.
China has long championed the concept of state sovereignty as fundamental to peace, security and prosperity. Often, this is expressed by Chinese officials as an absolute commitment to “non-interference” in other states’ internal affairs (see below). However, China’s views regarding the rights of sovereign states to be free from foreign interference go well beyond, for example, the prohibition in the UN Charter on the unauthorized use of force or the recognized prohibitions of arming or financing rebel movements. Instead, China routinely characterizes mere commentary on its domestic policies, not to speak of criticism of its human rights record, as an impermissible form of “interference”.
China’s determination to preserve state sovereignty at all costs has translated into its decision not to join the International Criminal Court (ICC). While it is not alone in this respect, it has also declined to join any of the optional protocols creating mechanisms by which individuals could bring a complaint against a state party alleging a violation of rights, and it has consistently opted out of rules allowing for any type of compulsory judicial settlement of a dispute under those core human rights treaties to which it is a member, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention Against Torture (CAT), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).
Implications for human rights:
The arguments for “non-interference” on the basis of “state sovereignty” are not only dangerous but beside the point when it comes to gross violations of human rights, such as crimes against humanity and other crimes under international law that can trigger heightened scrutiny from outside under international law.
In practice, when the authorities in states like China emphasize this principle today, they do so with the purpose of undermining the value of international rules and institutions in the field of human rights, as well as of achieving de facto immunity from repercussions for themselves and their officials.
This argument for “non-interference” also fails to take into account that what happens within a country’s borders can affect us all – as natural or human-made disasters, the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic have shown. While the concept of sovereignty can seem clear, its application in a highly connected and globalized world is not straightforward.
Mere monitoring of human rights and discussion or criticism of violations – even the adoption of formal statements and resolutions – does not constitute intrusion on state sovereignty or intervention in a country’s internal affairs. Monitoring human rights is a way of ensuring that states meet their human rights obligations to all people within their jurisdictions and under their control. By its nature, human rights monitoring requires investigating the “internal affairs” of states.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres identified the potential for governments to abuse the principle of sovereign equality when he told the UN Human Rights Council on 24 February 2020: “[National] sovereignty cannot be a pretext for violating human rights. We must overcome the false dichotomy between human rights and national sovereignty.” It shouldn’t be either/or.