political revue


Year XLIV, 2002, Number 1, Page 45



We offer a concept of sovereignty and, derived therefrom, views on self-determination, self-government, and ultimately a democratic, federal system for governing the world. This reflects a Weltanschauung quite different from one with a concept of sovereignty and its consequences still found in many circles.
Breakdown of the Concept of the Omnipotent Sovereign.
For three centuries after the treaties of Westphalia, as the concept of the absolute monarch was gradually eroded, the focus of sovereignty the authority to rule and powers that proceed therefrom — gradually passed from the ruling “sovereign” to the government of his territory or even to the territory itself, especially to the nation state. Nevertheless, while the post-Westphalian state-centered concept of sovereignty persisted in most circles, two paradigm changes were gradually being felt. First, the Reformation had broken the totalitarian control asserted by the Papacy and its clergy, who had intervened not only in the affairs of faith but also in the affairs of state and demanded absolute fealty, claiming to be agents of a sovereign deity. Later, although the Protestant clergy claimed to inherit the powers of their Catholic predecessors in the secular realm, after the Renaissance restored knowledge of Greek democratic government and the Roman Republic, the Enlightenment led to the gradual separation of the clergy from secular affairs and helped break down the monopoly or oligopoly in the sphere of government asserted by families of the monarchy and aristocracies.
Democratization of Sovereignty.
These socio-cultural developments contributed to the two major revolutions of the 18th Century, which resulted in the United States of America and the French Republic — secular republics that discarded hereditary rulers and established religions. In them, the authority to rule — to establish governments and make laws — passed from persons at the centers of the polities to their individual members, the citizens, namely, the People. At the same time, a new political entity was created in America — the federation — to unify and accommodate the people of a large and diverse territory, instead of either a weak league or confederation of states (as previously in America) or a highly centralized unitary state (as in France).
The concept of First Principles — the sovereign authority and the legislative power of citizens to create and alter governments, constitutions, charters and laws[1] — was widespread during the American Revolution. The Virginia Declaration of Rights, largely drafted by George Mason and adopted by the Virginia Constitutional Convention on 12 June 1776, asserted that “All power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people…” and “When any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to [the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community], a majority of the community has an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it…”[2]
Three weeks later, the Declaration of Independence by thirteen of the American colonies, drafted by the Virginian Thomas Jefferson, proclaimed not only that “all men are created equal” (a universal principle of equal rights), but also: “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” and “It is the right of the people to alter or abolish [a destructive government] and to institute new government”.
Since the weak American Confederacy under the League of Friendship and Articles of Confederation wasn’t viable, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton promoted a new federal constitution in Philadelphia in 1787. In seeking to have the sovereignty of the people reflected in this basic document, Madison was supported by two other delegates who promoted democracy, Mason and the Scottish-Pennsylvanian James Wilson.
In covering letters to Jefferson, Virginia Governor Edmund Randolph, and General George Washington in April 1787, Madison called his working paper (which became known as the Virginia Plan) perhaps the earliest draft of “a Constitutional Govt for the Union… to be sanctioned by the people of the States, acting in their original & sovereign character”. In the Constitutional Convention, he and Wilson proposed that the authority of the “first branch” of the legislature (eventually the House of Representatives) flow from the legitimate source of all authority — the People. Madison also insisted that the Constitution be ratified “by the supreme authority of the people themselves”, not by the legislatures of the member states. And when a delegate questioned on what authority could a recently independent state accede to the new federation when that state’s constitution had no provision therefore, he responded: “The People were in fact, the fountain of all power… They could alter constitutions as they pleased. It was a principle in the Bills of rights, that first principles might be resorted to.”[3]
When assuming the task of drafting the first amendments to the Federal Constitution as a Representative in the 1st Congress in 1789, Madison sought to have the above-cited words from the Virginia Declaration of Rights inserted at the beginning of the Constitution. However, conservative legislators watered down the reference to the powers and rights of the People to what became the 9th and 10th Amendments.
Barely two months after Madison’s drafting, as the French populace revolted against their perceived domestic oppressors — the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the clergy — the new National Assembly promulgated the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which proclaimed: “The law is the expression of the will of the community. All citizens have a right to play a role, either personally, or by their representatives, in its formation.”
In both instances, exercising their sovereign authority, the People delegated powers to governments of their communities, including their (member) republics and the federal republican union, in the case of the U.S.A., or to their unitary republic, as in France.
A century and a half later, in 1948, these principles were recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was approved by the United Nations General Assembly. Article 21 states: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government…” “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, either directly or through freely chosen representatives…”
Application of Sovereignty to Governing the World.
The notion that nation-states are sovereign continued to dominate thought throughout the 20th Century. Consequently, at the San Francisco Conference in 1945, the Charter of the United Nations Organization perpetuated the example of its doomed predecessor, the League of Nations, by basing the U.N.O. on “the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members”.[4] The drafters of the Charter’s Preamble did give a nod to the Preamble of the United States Constitution by opening with the words “We the Peoples of the United Nations” (reportedly made at the insistence of an American citizens organization rather than by delegates of governments). Yet, in practice, by perpetuating the obsolescing concept of sovereignty, the Preamble might just as well have retained the traditional form of introducing treaties, as in the opening words of the League’s Covenant, namely: “The High Contracting Parties.” The Charter was not a democratic, nor potentially democratic, constitution by the people(s) of the world, and it effectively lacked the means of being transformed into one.
Another significant event was a publication at the end of the devastating Second World War by Emery Reves, the Hungarian-born news entrepreneur. He declared in The Anatomy of Peace that it was time for another revolutionary concept, a new paradigm shift in thinking, to be realized. If the people could delegate powers to make, execute and adjudicate laws to governments of their local communities, provinces, and nation-states, they had the same authority to transfer some powers to a government of their global community — the world.[5]
World Federalist World Views.
Such democratic and global ideas contributed directly in the decade of the Nineties to three major pronouncements by activists in different groups of World Federalists. Already during World War II the Student Federalists in the United States had called for a radically different democratic world government. Subsequently, in 1947, several American groups merged into the United World Federalists (now the World Federalist Association – W.F.A.). Also in 1947 the U.W.F. and World Federalists in Canada, Western European and Asian countries became affiliated with the World Movement for World Federal Government (now the World Federalist Movement – W.F.M). However, the momentum for a democratic federalist global campaign was soon stalled as Stalin, the dictator of the Soviet Union, launched the Cold War by forcibly occupying East-Central Europe and imposing Communist governments, while labeling the World Federalists as Fascists. Fortunately, at the start of the Nineties, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who himself came to advocate a form of democratic world government,[6] brought about the ending of the Cold War (and the inadvertent collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire in Eastern Europe). Now, for the first time in a half-century the realization of two goals appeared possible, namely, implementing throughout the world the 18th Century concept of sovereignty vested in the People, and planning for the world itself to be democratically governed.
In 1997, in an effort to move from the conventional wisdom that sovereignty is absolute and lies in the nation-state, the W.F.A. issued an updated definition: “SOVEREIGNTY — The authority to form and change the government of a state or other political unit and to govern it in internal and external affairs”, limited by generally accepted moral principles, the civil rights of people, customary international law, and applicable international treaties (including the United Nations Charter). Although rulers of unitary authoritarian states and empires may claim sovereign powers over their subject populations, in democratic states or other self-governing political units, sovereignty is “the legitimate authority of the citizens, who may exercise their powers to govern directly, as in small units or, more usually indirectly, by delegating and entrusting powers to their representatives and officials in accord with a constitution”. In democratic federal systems, sovereignty is “the legitimate authority of the citizens, who delegate, entrust, and distribute powers among the governments of the central union, and the member political units in accord with a federal constitution”.[7]
A committee of the World Federalist Movement, whose members came from a dozen countries on four continents, drafted in 1998/99 a statement of principles on Federalism and the Right of People to Self-Government. Among the principles it proposed were: “The source of sovereignty — legitimate authority to govern — is the citizens, who associate together and delegate and entrust powers outward to institutions of government in increasingly larger communities. In a federal system, powers are distributed to governments of communities at different levels… Each inhabitant may be a citizen not only of smaller communities but also ultimately of the Earth’s polity. Citizens have a right to democratic government and to participation, either directly or through freely chosen representatives, in the governments of their respective communities…”
“Indispensable elements of democracy include periodic free and fair elections, by secret ballot, with universal suffrage for adult citizens and regulation of campaign financing, equality before the law and an independent judicial system, civilian control of the military, freedom of belief, speech, and assembly, and free media. Also desirable are: separation of the state and religious authorities, limited terms of office of officials (appointed as well as elected), widely available education, the initiative, referendum, and recall, and ombudsmen to assure accountability of officials, protect human rights and safeguard against corruption.
An oppressive ruler often insists that his/her regime is ‘sovereign’ with license to rule the subject people, immune from ‘interference in its internal affairs’ by the outside world. However, having been usurped from the people, his/her power is illegitimate. Thus the world community through the United Nations should feel obligated to find a means to restore to the oppressed people their basic rights. In a democratic world federation the rights of all groups would be safeguarded, precluding the rise of tyrants.”[8]
A public benefit corporation founded early in the Nineties in California primarily by World Federalists, Philadelphia II, by 2000 was promoting the National Initiative for Democracy. Following First Principles — the authority of the people to create, alter, and dissolve their governments — as exercised by the Framers of the Federal Constitution (in Philadelphia I) and by the ratifying conventions, Philadelphia II has drafted the Democracy Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Democracy Act. The Preamble of the latter proclaims: “We, the People of the United States inherently possess the sovereign authority and power to govern ourselves. We asserted this power in our Declaration of Independence and in the ratification of our Constitution through the exercise of First Principles…”[9]
The proposed law would reform and extend the initiative process to all jurisdictions within the United States. Comparable direct democracy movements are at work in other countries, especially in Europe. It follows that First Principles can be construed to apply universally.
Democracy Vs. Tyranny.
Despite all the declarations of the right of people to self-government, resistance remains great among pessimistic devotees of Realpolitik both politicians and academics — to enfranchising millions of the disenfranchised. Apologists for oppressors repeat their shibboleth, that their regimes, being “sovereign”, may work their will on unfortunate subjects free from outside interference in their internal affairs.
Opponents of the right of self-determination claim that if it were exercised, violence might result. However, as observed in 1999 by a Filipino civic activist referring to East Timor, and as asserted by numerous Americans and Europeans in recent decades with Tibet and Palestine in mind, “violence is a result not of the exercise of the right of self-determination but of the attempt to suppress or deny it”.[10] Finally, in certain cases of gross discrimination and continuing violations of fundamental human rights, especially ethnic cleansing, recognition of this as a basis for a remedial right to secession is growing.
Moreover, in 1991, not long after Idi Amin and Pol Pot wrought disaster on their peoples with impunity, and after Saddam Hussein attacked the Kuwaitis following his ethnic cleansing of Kurds, the Foreign Ministers of Canada, Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union all asserted that the world community should take action for humanitarian purposes against such tyrants.[11]
Meanwhile, in 1999 with Slobodan Milosevic, the destroyer of Yugoslavia, still in power, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, before the General Assembly, called for balancing the concept of state sovereignty with individual sovereignty, declaring: “State sovereignty is being redefined by the forces of globalization and international cooperation. The state is now widely understood to be the servant of its people, not vice versa. At the same time, individual sovereignty — the human rights and fundamental freedoms of each and every individual as enshrined in our Charter — has been enhanced by a renewed consciousness of the right of every individual to control his or her own destiny.” The core challenge to the United Nations in the next century, he continued, is “to forge unity behind the principle that massive and systematic violations of human rights — wherever they may take place — should not be allowed to stand”. We are in “an era when strictly traditional notions of sovereignty can no longer do justice to the aspirations of peoples everywhere to attain their fundamental freedoms”.[12]
The Future.
What about the future? The federation of American states arose out of their War of Independence. The European Union — evolving into a European Federation — was born from two destructive World Wars. The system of anarchy that persists in the world today makes it difficult to take action against perpetrators of crimes against humanity. Nevertheless, in addition to the intermediate step of putting an International Criminal Court into operation, the answer to world crimes — along with solutions to global problems that countries acting alone cannot solve — may lie sooner rather than later in the People of the World becoming aware of the need for, and striving to exercise their sovereignty through, a federal system of governing the world, a system of the People, by the People, and for the People.
John O. Sutter

* This heading includes contributions which the editorial board believes readers will find interesting, but which do not necessarily reflect the board’s views.
[1] See Philadelphia II, “First Principles”, in
[2] Sections 2 and 3.
[3] James Madison, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, New York, W.W. Norton, 1987, pp. 16, 70, 74, 97, 348, 564.
[4] Article 2.1 of the Charter.
[5] Emery Reves, The Anatomy of Peace, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1945/46.
[6] Speaking in Fulton, Missouri, in May 1992, Gorbachev observed: “On today’s agenda is not just a union of democratic states, but also a democratically organized world community… An awareness of the need for some kind of global government is gaining ground, one in which all members of the world community would take part.”
[7] See Toward Democratic World Federation, San Francisco, Autumn 1997, p. 8.
[8] See “Issues” in
[9] See Philadelphia II, Democracy Act in
[10] The Human Rights Agenda. Manila, October 1999.
[11] See Toward Democratic World Federation, San Francisco, Winter 1992, p. 5. Hans-Dietrich Genscher of Germany declared: “Today sovereignty must meet its limits in the responsibility of states for mankind as a whole and for the survival of Creation. When human rights are trampled under foot, the family of nations is not confined to the role of spectator… It must intervene.” Gianni de Michelis of Italy suggested revising parts of the U.N. Charter in order to accommodate “the right to intervene” in the internal affairs of states “for humanitarian ends and the protection of human rights”. The international community “must have the power to suspend sovereignty whenever it is exercised in a criminal manner. The international community must be on the side both of democratically elected parliaments and of oppressed nationalities.” Barbara McDougall of Canada and Boris Pankin of the U.S.S.R. spoke in a similar vein.
[12] From a speech before the U.N. General Assembly, 20 September 1999.



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