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Iraq: Sovereignty Issue Looming Large Ahead Of 30 June Transfer

A war of "word" is shaping up in Iraq in the coming weeks. That word is "sovereignty." The United States now says it will hand over only limited sovereignty to a new Iraqi government on 30 June. That conflicts with the hopes of many Iraqis and some members of the international community, who are pushing for a "full" transfer of sovereignty. But the real difference may be one of semantics. International law scholars say sovereignty is not something governments either have or do not have. In fact, no state in the modern world is actually fully sovereign. RFE/RL takes a closer look at the concept of national sovereignty.

Prague, 3 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A new disagreement appears to be taking shape in Iraq -- this time over the meaning of the word "sovereignty."

The United States has set 30 June as the date it says it will transfer sovereignty to a new Iraqi government. The original implication was that the Iraqis would get "full" sovereignty -- or full control -- over their country. But recently U.S. officials have appeared to backtrack, now saying that Iraq initially will get only "limited" sovereignty. This change in wording -- and apparent shift in policy -- has angered many Iraqis and some members of the international community. They suspect the United States of possibly reneging on its promise of transferring real authority in Iraq.

But what actually is sovereignty, and do concepts such as full or limited sovereignty have any real meaning?

"It's not like you are pregnant or you are not pregnant. There are degrees of sovereignty."
Robert Keohane, a political science professor at Duke University, has written extensively on sovereignty. He told RFE/RL that the classic definition of sovereignty -- and the popular conception of the term -- dates from the Thirty Years War in Europe in the first half of the 17th century. "A traditionally sovereign government is supreme over any authority within its own territory and takes orders from no one outside," he said. "That is the traditional notion of sovereignty dating from the 17th century."

Keohane said this older concept of sovereignty is no longer relevant. He said sovereignty in the modern world is not considered to be unitary -- in other words, it's not something governments either have or do not have. "[The older concept] is not meaningful,” he said. “The point is, you have to get away from the notion that sovereignty is unitary -- you have it or you don't. It's not like you are pregnant or you are not pregnant. There are degrees of sovereignty. What the United States and its partners are handing over to Iraq is partial sovereignty."

International law scholars now recognize three types of sovereignty. "International legal sovereignty" is when a government is recognized by other countries and international organizations. "Decision-making sovereignty" is when a government is fully free to make its own decisions. The third, "domestic sovereignty," is when a government has effective control over its territory. Possession of all three approximates "full sovereignty.”

"What's going to happen [on 30 June is] that Iraq will have 'international legal sovereignty.' It will be represented at the United Nations. Its government will be recognized by other governments. The U.S. will have an ambassador there -- instead of the head of the Coalition [Provisional] Authority. But [the new Iraqi government] will not have 'decision-making sovereignty' because it will have to defer to the judgments of the U.S. military with respect to fundamental security issues within its territory. And it won't have 'domestic sovereignty' because it will not have effective control over its own territory," Keohane said.

Such legal distinctions are not likely to be easily understood by Iraqi citizens, who are impatient to run their own country -- or even at the United Nations, where a new battle over the issue of sovereignty appears to be shaping up.

The United States is seeking a Security Council resolution to show international support for the new Iraqi government. But opponents of the Iraq war, like France, can be expected to reject any wording that implies anything less than full sovereignty for Iraq. French President Jacques Chirac, speaking last week in Paris, said, "There is no possible way toward the reconstruction of Iraq without a real transfer of sovereignty under the effective control of the United Nations."

The United States and its main ally on the council, Great Britain, are counting on special UN Iraq envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to help smooth over differences. Speaking earlier this month, Brahimi seemed to recognize that Iraq will get only limited sovereignty on 30 June. "I think sovereignty means for me the end of legal occupation," he said. "There will be a government that will be sovereign, that will exercise this sovereignty. Of course, realities will have to be addressed. Sovereignty will be handed over, but the 150,000 soldiers that are here are not going to disappear on 1 July."

Keohane said, in fact, that there are many examples of countries and hotspots around the world where limited sovereignty exists and works relatively well in practice. He cited Bosnia and Taiwan as two. "Bosnia has 'international legal sovereignty' but does not have 'decision-making sovereignty' and it doesn't have 'domestic sovereignty.' Taiwan has 'decision-making sovereignty' and 'domestic sovereignty' but does not have 'international legal sovereignty' -- it's not at the UN."

Keohane said no country is really fully sovereign. Member states of the European Union are subject to a higher authority in Brussels.

Even the United States -- the closest example of a fully sovereign country -- is not truly sovereign. Its laws, for example, can be overruled by the arbitration body of the World Trade Organization.
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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.