#BookClub: Cosmopolitanism, State Sovereignty, International Law and Politics in Africa

Cosmopolitanism, State Sovereignty, International Law and Politics: A Theory
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Territorial disputes are a clear example of the zero-sum game played by the claimed and claiming agents, who feed their differences rather than recognizing their affinities. Current global events such as COVID-19 clearly show the necessity for a coherent, cohesive and comprehensive response to crises. World leaders and organizations are failing to address global issues in an efficient manner.

In a similar vein, legal, political and international relations scholars assert dead-end arguments; futile hermeneutical, technical, conceptual and theoretical discussions; and seem oblivious to the urgency that crises present. Current and ongoing crises as well as the exacerbation of pre-existing conditions require urgency. The impact on legal and socio-political inequalities; economic ramifications of crises and the prospect for recovery depending on places and social characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, age, skill-levels, local government-support, etc.; and the effects on the environment require immediate attention.

The legal, political and international relations disciplines offer various potential remedies, procedures and organizations to deal with crises and solve these problems. Although these remedies, procedures and organizations are useful in certain situations, it is indisputable that they are ineffective at peacefully and permanently handling crises. If and when current models fail or consistently fall short of addressing global changes and crises, a requisite paradigm shift should be implemented. COVID-19 is one of several indicators that prove mankind as a whole needs to reframe crises, reassess situations and discard the frames of past paradigms.

The outcomes of the current fragmented and unidimensional analyses and responses to crises (as a result of the science of reference and its methodology and the agent in question, such as individuals, communities and states) cannot but have a limited significance in theory and practice.

My previous monograph, Territorial Disputes and State Sovereignty: International Law and Politics, moves beyond existing accounts, introducing a multidimensional analysis that assesses the phenomena of pluralism of pluralisms. A pluralism of pluralism means the acknowledgment of a variety of agents (individuals, communities and states) that may play different roles in their interrelations (host, participant, attendees and viewers), and hence, the recognition of the plurality of subjects at play.

Furthermore, these agents and players may act within several contexts (local, regional and international) and their interrelations simultaneously exist in three realms (rational, empirical and axiological). To add to this intricacy, the many views (law, politics, philosophy and non-scientific theories) about agents, players, contexts and realms contain both a horizontal and vertical dimension that should take into account the two variables of time and space.

Territorial disputes in Africa

In the book I deploy this multidimensional view to assess and explain several territorial disputes, including those in Africa.

Current territorial disputes and sovereignty conflicts in Africa have colonial roots that still impact the continent sociologically, financially, legally and politically. Similar to the Americas, former colonial powers left behind “artificially” created divisions in what used to be a “territory” sociologically defined. However, the book shows that contemporary analysis often overlooks complexity of these realities. The interaction between the pre-colonial context, the divide-and-rule strategies of European powers, and current competition – between, for example, China, Russia and the United States – has fuelled ongoing territorial disputes. 

In the particular case of African states, territorial disputes include “boundary disputes” and “border disputes.” In broad terms, borders in pre-colonial Africa were either: a) a frontier of contact for circumstances where different cultural and political communities lived and operated side by side; b) frontier of separation or a buffer zone over which neither side claimed or exercised any authority—e.g.  forests and deserts usually provided natural frontiers in Central Sudan including Bornu, Maradi, Air and the Fulani Empire; or c) over-lapping frontiers where different communities share the territory mainly as enclaves.

Many disputes in Africa are take the form that they do due to the legacies of imperialism and colonialism. European colonial powers fixed arbitrarily African boundaries within and outside of the Berlin Conference of 1885 (the Berlin Conference opened in November 1884 and lasted until February 1885). Territories were “constructed” based on European political considerations, and usually without regard to sociological and ethnological factors or knowledge about the socio-cultural characteristics of the continent.

Unsurprisingly, African boundaries resulted in grouping together different ethnic groups in one state, cutting across many communities, and in some cases creating states with vulnerable social and economic stability. Since then, communities, governments and leaders in Africa have had to face the effects of these arbitrary decisions.

The current territorial disputes in Africa are either a) international disagreements, between African and non-African parties; or b) regional disagreements, between African parties only. Although colonial rule formally ended many years ago, former colonial powers have still presence in Africa and dictate directly or indirectly the internal and international agenda. Indeed, Africa is arguably the region where territorial disputes show the negative synergy amongst different issues at stake most clearly. Moreover, all the contexts—i.e. domestic, regional and international—play a role in their initiation, continuation and lack of peaceful and permanent settlement. For instance, natural resources are often one of the factors that combine to drive territorial disputes. Resource disputes in Africa happen on all scales, from the level of the individual—i.e. neighbors arguing over access to water—to the level of the state—i.e. borders overlapping an area rich in any natural resource.

This is not only about natural resources of course – such disagreements are often wrapped up with tensions between rival ethnic groups or countries, which themselves are rooted in histories of perceived marginalization. In turn, disputes and conflict further complicate the picture, for example by driving uncontrolled migration both within and between countries. 

Given the combination of natural resources, ethnic differences, colonial legacies, artificially defined boundaries, economic challenges and the opportunism of many leaders, it is perhaps not surprising that territorial disputes are an important determinant of poverty on the continent.

A new paradigm

My new book, Cosmopolitanism, State Sovereignty and International Law and Politics: A Theory, responds to this complex reality, sketching a reconceived way of an approach to understanding the relationship between individuals, communities and states. Indeed, in order to coordinate separate and sovereign legal systems, additional and continued research is a task that deserves further exploration. The chapters attempt to take the first steps in creating that path.

Territorial disputes at large are an example of crises in which both sovereignty and cosmopolitanism play a defining role. As a whole, the monograph shows the complexity present in issues that include different agents in order to make evident a crucial point, often ignored or neglected: The apparent tension between sovereignty and cosmopolitanism may be more thoroughly and adequately considered, and arguably resolved, if the scholarly exploration embraces a multidimensional approach.

Undoubtedly, it may be the case that a particular agent, their role, a context, a realm or a mode of existence is more significant than the other pluralities or their subgroups with regard to a singular case that compromises sovereignty and cosmopolitanism. Nevertheless, it is in the multidimensional understanding as multi-agent, multi-contextual, multi-realm and multi-existence nature of these issues that a more robust account of their intricacies can be achieved. Therefore, by having a more robust account of their intricacies, it may be possible to reimagine in theory, and hopefully, in practice, a way of dealing with them peacefully and permanently.

The complexity sovereignty and cosmopolitanism presents is challenging. By accepting the fact that states will not forfeit their sovereignty and that individuals should have a minimum set of guarantees protected by law regardless of their individual circumstances, this monograph argues for positive law cosmopolitanism. States could retain their sovereignty and at the same time individuals would enjoy a minimum set of legal guarantees recognized beyond jurisdictional differences.

Jorge E. Núñez is a Reader in Legal and Political Philosophy and International Relations at Manchester Law School, UK and Visiting Professor at Facultad de Ciencias Jurídicas y Sociales, UNLP, Argentina. E-mail: j.nunez@mmu.ac.uk Website: https://drjorge.world/


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