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  • Human Rights in the Emerging Global Order: A New Sovereignty?
  • Mark Gibney
Human Rights in the Emerging Global Order: A New Sovereignty? by Kurt Mills (MacMillan Press/Great Britain; St. Martin’s Press/USA, 1998).

Kurt Mills has written an important and thought provoking book. The thesis that Mills presents is that we live in what he calls an “Age of Ambiguity.” 1 The primary reason for this ambiguity is that there are tremendous changes and challenges to the notion of state sovereignty. As he boldly states near the outset: “The days of sovereignty as an absolute ordering principle are over.” 2

Mills provides a number of phenomena that have led to this erosion of state power. These include environmental degradation from sources beyond a particular state’s territorial boundaries; surges in human migrations that so many states have not been able to control; the ever-growing influence and power of multinational corporations; a world economic system that has gone far in making domestic actors seemingly irrelevant; and so forth. What is not clear is what will be filling this vacuum. Some of the powers traditionally performed by states have been moving upwards to regional and international organizations while others have been moving downwards to ethnic groups, nongovernmental organizations, and even to individuals. Of course, some state power is staying right at home, but Mills’ point is that instead of seeing one version of sovereignty, we will be experiencing many variations on this theme.

What should be of particular interest to readers of this journal is Mills’ notion that these various sovereigns are legitimate only to the extent that they protect the human rights of individuals. 3 If I have a disagreement with Mills, it is that I would draw a different line with respect to where “is” and “ought” meet. Although I am in complete agreement with Mills’ point that the explosion of human rights instruments over the past half-century has done much to infringe on the notion of state sovereignty, 4 I would also go on to say that this has been true much more in theory than in actual practice. Certainly, Mills does an excellent job of buttressing his argument by explaining how interventions in such countries as Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, and now Kosovo, have gone far in creating this new sovereignty—one where the protection of human rights supersedes the sovereignty of states.

The problem, however, is that the list of counter examples would be every bit as long (if not much longer). Just to use the letter A, there have been resounding non-interventions in Angola, Afghanistan, and Algeria, notwithstanding the gross and systematic human rights abuses being carried out in those countries. It is noteworthy that the “hands off” approach taken by the West is not based on any deep concerns with violating the sovereignty of these states. In some manner, we are still witnessing this new sovereignty, but, aside from the high visibility cases noted earlier, what has replaced the mantra of state sovereignty in so many locales around the world is complete and utter indifference. The governments in these countries would certainly [End Page 1134] fail Mills’ “legitimacy” test, but have our own actions been any better?

One of the key points about this book is not only the substantial number of topics that Mills addresses in his examination of the new sovereignty, but also the insight and new ideas that he provides that give the reader a different take on such issues as self-determination, on a preferred system for making asylum determinations, on the “obligation” (rather than the “right”) of humanitarian intervention, and so forth. The reader (or at least this reader) is continually being challenged to think differently about a host of phenomena. This, perhaps, will only add more ambiguity, but that is the age in which we live.

Mark Gibney
Belk Distinguished Professor
University of North Carolina-Asheville


1. Kurt Mills, Human Rights in the Emerging Global Order: A New Sovereignty? 53 (1998).

2. Id. at 3.

3. Id. at 42–43.

4. Id. at 39–40.


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