Egypt, national sovereignty and the UN

The anti-Mubarak protests in Egypt have dominated headlines and conversations this past week as the world watches the largest Arab state in the Middle East go through an unexpected political crisis. Leaders from various countries and multi-national organizations have contributed to the rising international pressure on President Mubarak to resign from government before the presidential elections set for September this year. Ban Ki-moon, the UN’s Secretary General, is among the prominent figures urging reform and an “orderly and peaceful transition”.  Such international attention and receptiveness to the events in Egypt have prompted some to call on the UN Security Council to intervene.  However, it is important not to forget about the fine line of national sovereignty; a key principle championed by the UN.

National sovereignty forms the basis of much international law, and is clearly enshrined in the UN Charter. Article 2 in Chapter 1 of this Charter states that “nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state” and that “the [UN] is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all of its Members.” More plainly said, the UN is dedicated to upholding the national sovereignty of each of its Members equally and will not intervene in their domestic affairs.

Over the years, however, the meaning behind this simple language has changed with shifting international attitudes and norms regarding intervention and the concept of international human rights.  Even the UN Charter contains language , such as the statement in Article 1 of Chapter 1 that “[the UN shall] encourage respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms”, which echoes these modern sentiments.  Since the end of the Cold War in particular the number of humanitarian interventions undertaken by the UN have risen significantly and are now considered a standard option instead of a more exceptional undertaking.

The United Nations, as the principle international organization dedicated to maintaining global peace and security, is often looked to in times of domestic crises.  Most recently in Egypt Dr. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who heads the World Muslim Scholars’ Union, urged the UN to “intervene in Egypt and protect innocent civilians”. While the death and injuring of Egyptian protesters is deplorable, it is still inadvisable for the UN to intervene due to the dangerous precedent it would set.  Such an unlikely move , given that the situation in Egypt has not reached a level consistent with current standards for humanitarian intervention, would introduce the idea of the UN determining the winner in a domestic political battle as a part of the discourse about international interventions and mark the beginning of a new, more aggressive phase in international interventions.


This post was written by Quinn Connors, a senior at Tufts University majoring in International Relations.


About unagbtufts

Quinn Connors is a senior at Tufts University majoring in International Relations and concentrating on the Middle East. Seoho Lee is a senior majoring in Political Science and International Relations concentrating on East and Southeast Asia. They are currently serving as Student Ambassadors for the United Nations Association of Greater Boston.
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