Characteristics of Sovereignty

Sovereignty has the following characteristics:

1. Permanence: Governments may come and go, but the state remains for ever. As the state is permanent, so is its sovereignty. So long as the State lasts, sovereignty also lasts. The State and sovereignty cannot be separated from each other. Sovereignty continues or remains uninterrupted by changes in government in a State. When there is change of government or ruler, sovereignty shifts to the new government or ruler. But sovereignty as an attribute of the State continues. It is in this sense that sovereignty is claimed to be permanent.

2. Exclusiveness: Another characteristic of sovereignty is exclusiveness. It means that the State alone possesses supreme power and is legally competent to compel the obedience of its citizens. In other words, there cannot be more than one sovereign in a state claiming the legal obedience of the people. Acceptance of more than one supreme and ultimate power would affect the essential unity of the State.

3. All-Comprehensivenes: The all-comprehensive and universal character of sovereignty denotes that within a State, the authority of the sovereign must extend to all persons, associations and groups existing within the territory of the State. Hence, the commands of the sovereign are binding on all persons and groups. No one can be exempted or free from the all-embracing authority of the State. However, foreign diplomats and ambassadors enjoy immunity from the control of the State in which they reside. They are subject to the laws of their own states. But these extra-territorial privileges enjoyed by the diplomatic community under the provisions of international law is not a real limitation on the State’s sovereign power; for it is, after all, a matter of international courtesy and the sovereign may at any time withdraw the privileges granted to those who enjoy them.

4. Inalienability: Sovereignty is also inalienable. It cannot be transferred or parted with, without destroying sovereignty itself. In other words, no sovereign can claim to be sovereign after transferring its supreme powers to another person. However, the abdication of a monarch or sovereign or a change of government does not mean the alienation of sovereignty – in this case, sovereignty only shifts to a new bearer. When a state cedes a portion of its territory, it loses its sovereignty over the area ceded. For example, when the United States and its allies occupied Iraq , sovereignty shifted to them, but later sovereignty was transferred to the Iraqis soon after the elections.

5. Indivisibility: Sovereignty cannot be divided. The reason is that if sovereignty is divided, more than one state would exist. Sovereignty is an entire thing- to divide it is to destroy it. It is the supreme power in a state and we cannot think of two or more states sharing sovereignty. In a Federal state, there is no division of sovereignty as sovereignty rests with the Federal government. The division, distribution, delegation or sharing of powers between the Central government and the state governments do not affect the idea of undivided sovereignty. However, this characteristic has its own limitations. There are federations where sovereignty gets divided between the centre and the states. Different parties might be ruling at the same time in the states and the centre with different and some times opposite wills. As Lowell observes, “There can exist within the same territory two sovereigns issuing commands to same subjects touching different matters”. According to pluralists, sovereignty is divided between the state and other associations. According to them the state is not at all absolute and cannot represent the will of the community in all aspects of life.

6. Absoluteness: Sovereignty is absolute and unlimited. This means that neither within the state nor outside it is there any power which is superior to the sovereign. Within the state, the sovereign can make any law it pleases. It can even change the constitution itself. No other authority within the state has this power. Externally, the state is not subject to the control or domination of another state. In other words, there is no authority outside the state to which a sovereign is obedient or dependent. The state can enter into any treaty or have relations with any other state it wishes.

However this characteristic of sovereignty has been criticized from various view-points.

  1. Customs, religion and principles of morality are a limitation upon state. No sovereign dare challenge these. Neither he can create nor destroy them.

  2. In modern states, constitutions are written. They determine the powers and duties of state. Citizens are given fundamental rights, which become a limitation on the state and its sovereignty.

  3. No state or sovereign possess powers without duties. This theory speaks of powers of the sovereign but not of his duties. State has a purpose, whatever it be and to the extent of that purpose, the state and its sovereignty is limited.

  4. Externally, a state is equal to other states. This equality of states is a limitation on one another. International law imposes duties on states which they must perform. If they violate it, they are guilty of its breach.

  5. Even the physical capacity of a state is its limitation. It is pointed out that legally too sovereignty is not absolute. State cannot make a law irrespective of its content and acceptability of it by the people. Laws are made not because the sovereign has power

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