When I was working with fellow activist Walter Bresette, he framed much of what he was leading in tribal country as sovereignty. It was a struggle for sovereignty, of course, from a people who were overrun by European settlers and their military. I supported sovereignty for the Anishinabe people, of course. They were the victims. Walter and I had long and fruitful discussions for a decade about the relationship between sovereignty and nonviolence. We learned from each other, and he learned faster and more profoundly than I. I witnessed him defending Anishinabe sovereignty with some of the most robust and fearless nonviolence I've ever encountered. His fatal heart attack more than a decade ago was a tremendous loss. We miss him still, greatly.
Nowadays, following long observations and study while bearing in mind what Walter taught, I hold more complicated views of sovereignty. Should a culture get to protect its sovereignty by taking away the sovereignty of other cultures? Is sovereignty a zero-sum game? Does sovereignty include a state's ability to destroy the sovereignty of the individuals who happen to be born in that sovereign state? Are all sovereign rights created equal?
According to the most recent USDA report, approximately two percent of all US privately held farm and forestland is owned by foreigners. The total is more than 25.7 million acres, a larger total landmass than Hawaii and Massachusetts combined. Is this a threat to US sovereignty? Or does that depend? Images of the US as the new Tibet, with Chinese settlers taking over huge swatches of states, would differ for many from an image of Canadians owning land in Arizona where they overwinter like the snowbirds some of them are. Images of Saudi Arabian holdings of American farm and forests for shipments of food and timber to Saudi Arabia are one thing; Dutch wind energy companies paying American taxes to harvest windpower from the windswept wastelands of West Texas are another. Or are all these equally non-threatening? Equally threatening?
Now imagine living in Ethiopia on less than $1 per day with famine. Here comes the Saudi government to build sophisticated agricultural operations under armed guard. Starvation is common in Ethiopia and Saudi guards with AK-47s patrol the greenhouses of Saudi-owned tracts of agricultural land (Klare, 2012, p. 185). Is this a violation of anyone's sovereignty? Does anyone care?
Nonviolent civil society power is how people both recognize, seize, and activate collective sovereignty, which teaches us a great deal about capacity. People are learning to think in complex terms, to understand interests and positions, and to operate rationally from the less elite side of the question. This takes a willingness and skill to reframe the basic questions and arguments when we are so often presented false dichotomies or inaccurate conflict frames. Sandra Smeltzer (2009) discusses some of these dilemmas in the context of Malaysian civil society's response to US efforts to promote a fast-track free trade arrangement with that country's elected but autocratic government.
If and when citizens are made aware of the FTA’s importance, the next step is to get them involved in resistance activities – a difficult sell for civil society agents in a country with severely limited freedoms of press and assembly. Many Malaysians are, quite understandably,cautious about engaging in public displays of resistance, especially if the authorities might retaliate in the form of fines, physical, emotional, and/or financial harassment, or even imprisonment (p. 20).As Smeltzer details, even in societies with those limited freedoms, determined activists will discover or create means of communication, making civil resistance more organized, but it is essentially a race against the more sophisticated and elite-owned mass media. Isn't this the case everywhere, however? It seems there is some tipping point that is determined by several factors, one of them being the perception of violation of sovereignty and another being the perception of impact of that violation. Civil society asks itself, one person and one local community at a time, one issue at a time, those two questions and rolls them up against the risks of resistance.
If the answers are, yes, this policy violates our sovereignty, yes, the impacts hurt our lives appreciably, and yes, we are willing to risk resistance, it will blossom. How it is organized, how alliances are made and activated, and what methods are chosen--these will be important, probably dispositive factors in the outcome. Bellwether communities can offer a window into likelihood of resistance; when health sovereignty is under lethal threat, barriers to resistance lower quickly and people will express themselves.
Klare, Michael T. (2012). The race for what’s left. New York, NY: Metropolitan.
Smeltzer, S. (2009). A Malaysia–United States free trade agreement: Malaysian media and domestic resistance. Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 50(1), 13-23. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8373.2009.01377.x