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Sovereignty is the exclusive right to exercise supreme authority over a geographic region, group of people or oneself. Sovereignty over a nation is generally vested in a government or other political agency, though there are cases where it is held by an individual. A monarch who rules a sovereign country can also be referred to as the sovereign of that country. The concept of sovereignty also pertains to a government possessing full control over its own affairs within a territorial or geographical area or limit.


Sovereignty in certain contexts

In international law, sovereignty is the exercise of power by a state. De jure sovereignty is the legal right to do so; de facto sovereignty is the ability in fact to do so (which becomes of special concern upon the failure of the usual expectation that de jure and de facto sovereignty exist at the place and time of concern, and rest in the same organization). Foreign governments recognize the sovereignty of a state over a territory, or refuse to do so.

For instance, in theory, both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China considered themselves sovereign governments over the whole territory of mainland China and Taiwan. Though some foreign governments recognize the Republic of China as the valid state, most now recognize the People's Republic of China. However, de facto, the People's Republic of China exercises sovereign power over mainland China, while the Republic of China exercises sovereign power over Taiwan. Since ambassadors are only exchanged between sovereign high parties, the countries recognizing the People's Republic often entertain de facto but not de jure diplomatic relationships with Taiwan by maintaining 'offices of representation', such as the American Institute in Taiwan, rather than embassies there.

Tribal sovereignty refers to the right of tribes or of federally recognized American Indian nations to exercise limited jurisdiction within and sometimes beyond reservation boundaries.

Two entities without territorial possessions are recognized as sovereign subjects under international law, namely Holy See (separate entity in international law vis-á-vis Vatican City, which has a very small amount of territory) and Order of Malta.

The etymology of the word sovereignty, with origins in the Latin super, conveys the idea of "overness".

In some regions of the world, such as Quebec, the word "sovereignty" has become the preferred synonym for national independence. Compare the Maori term rangatiratanga, and the concept of self-determination.

Different views of sovereignties

There exist vastly differing views on the moral bases of sovereignty. These views translate into various bases for legal systems:

  • Partisans of the divine right of kings argue that the monarch is sovereign by divine right, and not by the agreement of the people. This, pushed to its conclusion, translates into a system of absolute monarchy.
  • Most democracies are based on the concept of popular sovereignty: Ultimately, sovereignty is vested in the people, who freely grant the exercise of it to the government.
  • Anarchists and some libertarians deny the sovereignty of states and governments.
  • Supporters of democratic globalization consider that nation-states should yield some of their power to world organization controlled by world citizens instead of being organized as now in an intergovernmental basis

The key element of sovereignty in the legalistic sense is that of exclusivity of jurisdiction.

Specifically, when a decision is made by a sovereign entity, it cannot generally be overruled by a higher authority. Further, it is generally held that another legal element of sovereignty requires not only the legal right to exercise power, but the actual exercise of such power. ("no de jure sovereignty without de facto sovereignty") In other words, neither claiming/being proclaimed Sovereign, nor merely exercising the power of a Sovereign is sufficient, sovereignty requires both elements.

Sovereignty and federalism

In federal systems of government, such as that of the United States, sovereignty also refers to powers a state-government has independently of the federal government.

The question whether the individual states, particularly the so-called 'Confederate States' of the American Union remained sovereign became a matter of debate in the USA, especially in its first century:

  • According to the theory of John C. Calhoun, the states had entered into an agreement from which they might withdraw if other parties broke the terms of agreement, and they remained sovereign. Calhoun contributed to the theoretical basis for acts of secession, as occurred just before the American Civil War. However, Calhoun propounded this as part of a general theory of "nullification", in which a state had the right to refuse to accept any Federal law that it found to be unconstitutional. These self-same southern states refused to accept that non-slave states had any such nullificatory right and insisted that the Federal government enforce the Fugitive Slave Act over any state's attempt to nullify it-- however the premises of the Act was explicit in the Constitution, which required that all prisoners or slaves who escaped into other states, must be returned to their state of origin.
  • According to the theory expounded in the Federalist Party, the individual states did not, after the formation of the constitution, remain completely sovereign: they retained possession of certain attributes of sovereignty, while others were ceded to the Federal government; while many states existed, only one sovereign survived. Even if the origin was a compact or contract, after the "United States" were formed by a "constitutional act" there no longer existed a mere contractual relation: there existed a state to which all were subject, and which all must obey. However, the Federalist party was soundly defeated, and the states soundly retained in Constitutional session, that violence could never be used against any state in enforcement of any of its dictates.
  • According to Austin: In the case of a composite state or a supreme federal government, the several united governments of the several united societies together with a government common to these several societies, hold joint sovereignty in each of these several societies and also in the larger society arising from the federal union, the several governments of the several united societies remain jointly sovereign in each and all.

However, Jefferson and Madison alike, held that the states were not unlimited in their submission to the federal government; rather, each held that every state was the final arbiter of its own self-government, regardless of the union.

Quotes from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.

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