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Jamie Scudder is a Country Risk Analyst for Maplecroft. She obtained a Masters degree in Geopolitics from King's College London where she secured a distinction.
The war on terror has arguably posed the most comprehensive challenge to contemporary forms of sovereignty in the international system. The notion of contingent sovereignty in which states are required to act responsibly, questions the legitimacy of claims to territorial integrity as an absolute in international law. The argument to support intervention in Afghanistan and later Iraq, through the extension of the humanitarian discourse that states have a responsibility to protect (R2P), was hinged on this notion.
The humanitarian discourse, emerging as a result of various incidents during the 1990s argues in favour of the limits to state sovereignty through emphasising the rights of the individual. The use of force by the US and NATO in the past has been morally based on the need for humanitarian assistance (Chopra and Weiss 1992). Indeed Kofi Annan has stressed the need to rethink the principle of territorial integrity in terms of the exclusive internal sovereignty of states (1999).
The statement concerning the implications of catastrophes in Rwanda and Kosovo, did not however intend to, firstly permit the action as a pre-emptive form of self-defence or, secondly, authorize action outside of the mandate of the U.N. The attempt to bring together the war on terror and the prior justifications for humanitarian intervention, Acharya comments 'is one of the most remarkable ironies of US foreign policy after 9/11’ (2007 288).
The implications the war on terror has on the concept of territorial integrity and in turn the sovereignty of states then, goes further than that proposed through humanitarian arguments and therefore marks a fundamental shift in the state of sovereignty in the international state system.
In reality the response on the ground in 2001 shows intervention to be anything but humane. The present crisis in Afghanistan is an outcome of decades of internal conflict and foreign intervention that has long compromised its territorial integrity. The Bush administration’s goals in Afghanistan since late 2001, were to focus on relations with individual power brokers with the aim to counter the al-Qaeda threat. This has managed to fuel the insurgency and confound any hopes of promoting democratic governance and the rule of law (ICG 2009).
Seven years on and the state is still at war against extremists and descending into an increasing state of weakness that has been exploited by al-Qaeda and the Taliban (Rubin 2007). Effective control and security throughout the country has declined deeming access difficult to external forces (Figure 2). Intervention is seen as the remedy for states that harbour terrorists or develop weapons of mass destruction, and al-Qaeda has been dealt with as it were a state.
The fact that al-Qaeda is an inherently deterritorialised opponent, and although it remains inherently geographical in nature, its strategies act to challenge the basis of the existing international system. As Daanish Mustafa elaborates, ‘the sovereign spaces of nation-states and the nodal networks of international terrorism offer a fundamental challenge to the modern state-centred global geopolitics’ (2005, 82).
Territorial preservation, as Agnew explains is merely one aspect of a states territorial integrity (2005). The lack of territorial sovereignty is often a key characteristic of so-called failed states where effective monopoly over the internal means of violence is lost. The US invasion therefore contributed to the long running history of intervention in Afghanistan and as a result the US forces underestimated the prominence of other actors within the vacuum of the failed state.
Conflicts over territory raise a range of legal and moral questions that encompass the appropriate means for pursuing political goals to fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the current international system. Burke Hendrix has argued that international law does not provide a credible moral account of state territory (2001).
As the principles of self-determination and territorial integrity are in tension, so too is the relation between territorial integrity and intervention under the guise of humanitarian assistance, and more so under the recent rationale for the promotion of democracy.
Without suggesting qualification of the above questions it may be of value to reassess the association of the concepts of sovereignty and territory, which is so often taken for granted. As Agnew contends, ‘sovereignty is neither inherently territorial nor is it exclusively organised on a state-by-state basis’ (2005, 437). The artificial nature of such an alliance becomes more apparent when reviewing the situation in Afghanistan and other targeted states in the war on terror.
As the terrorist threat was believed to be at large within these ‘failed’ or ‘weak’ states, the state itself was targeted. The destruction caused has therefore been representative of the myth that sovereignty exists in absolute form entirely within the international states system. In this sense the concept of territory in international law with regards to sovereignty falls short.
Leonhardt van Efferink, editor of EG, will be convening a Country Risk Analysis Summer School at Maastricht University in July/August:
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Photo courtesy of the interviewee