Meaning and Characteristics of Sovereignty


The term “Sovereignty” has been derived from the Latin word “Superanus” which means supreme or paramount. Although the term “Sovereignty” is modern yet the idea of “Sovereignty” goes back to Aristotle who spoke of the “supreme power of the state”. Throughout the middle Ages the Roman jurists and the civilians kept this idea in their mind and frequently employed the terms “Summa” potestas and “Plenitudo potestatis” to designate the supreme power of the state.

The terms “Sovereign” and “Sovereignty” were first used by the French jurists in the fifteenth century and later they found their way into English, Italian and German political literature. The use of the term “Sovereignty” in Political Science dates back to the publication of Bodin’s “The Republic” in 1576.

“The word sovereign”, says J.S. Roucek and others, “entered the vocabulary of political theory from the feudal order, wherein it designated a relationship between persons. The term sovereign had been applicable to any feudal overlord with authority over subjects in his own dominions”.

Two Aspects of Sovereignty:

There are two aspects of sovereignty: internal sovereignty and external sovereignty. Internal Sovereignty means some persons, assembly of group of persons in every independent state have the final legal authority to command and enforce obedience.

This sovereignty exercises its absolute authority over all individuals or associations of the individuals within the state. Professor Harold Laski has very aptly remarked in this connection: “It issues orders to all men and all associations within that area; it receives orders from none of them. It will is subject to no legal limitation of any kind. What it proposes is right by mere announcement of intention”.

We mean, by External Sovereignty, that the State is subject to no other authority and is independent of any compulsion on the part of other States. Every independent state reserves the authority to renounce trade treaties and to enter into military agreements. Each estate is independent of other states.

Every independent State is at liberty to determine its foreign policy and to join any bloc of power it likes. Any other state does not reserve any right to interfere with the external matter of an independent state. Thus, by external sovereignty we mean that every state is independent of other states.

In other words, External Sovereignty means national freedom. Professor Laski has very correctly observed in this regard, “The modern state is a sovereign state. It is, therefore, independent in the face of other communities.

It may infuse its will towards them with a substance which need not be affected by the will of any external power”. This statement of Professor Laski makes it very clear that the State possesses both external and internal sovereignty.

Definitions of Sovereignty:

(1) “That characteristic of the state by virtue of which it cannot be legally bound except by its own or limited by any power other than itself. -Jellineck

(2) “Sovereignty is the sovereign political power vested in him whose acts are not subject to any other and whose will cannot be over-ridden”. -Grotius

(3) “Sovereignty is the supreme power of the State over citizens and subjects unrestrained by law”. -Bodin

(4) Sovereignty is “the common power of the state, it is the will of the nation organised in the state, it is right to give unconditional orders to all individuals in the territory of state”. -Duguit (Droit Constitutional Vol. 1, page 113)

(5) Burgess characterised sovereign is the “Original, absolute, unlimited power over the individual subjects and over all associations of subjects”.

(6) “Sovereignty is that power which is neither temporary nor delegated, nor subject to particular rules which it cannot alter, not answerable to any other power over earth”. -Pollock

(7) “Sovereignty is the supreme will of the state”. -Willoughby

(8) “Sovereignty is the daily operative power of framing and giving efficacy to the laws”. -Woodrow Wilson

(9) Sovereignty is “the supreme, irresistible, absolute, uncontrolled authority in which the ‘jurist summi imperi’ reside”. -Blackstone

(10) The sovereignty is “legally supreme over an individual or group, says Laski, he possesses “supreme coercive power”.

After closely studying and carefully examining the definitions of sovereignty, given above, we arrive at the conclusion that sovereignty is the supreme political power of the state. It has two aspects: internal and external. Sovereignty is an unlimited power and it is not subject to any other authority.

Characteristics or Attributes of Sovereignty:

According to Dr. Garner, following are the characteristics or attributes of Sovereignty:

(1) Permanence.

(2) Exclusiveness.

(3) All-Comprehensiveness.

(4) Inalienability.

(5) Unity.

(6) Imprescriptibility.

(7) Indivisibility.

(8) Absoluteness or illimitability.

(9) Originality.

(1) Permanence:

Permanence is the chief characteristics of sovereignty. Sovereignty lasts as long as an independent state lasts. The death of the king, the overthrow of the government and the addiction of power does not lead to the destruction of sovereignty.

We should keep in mind the basic fact that the king or the ruler exercises sovereign power on behalf of the state and, therefore, sovereignty lasts as long as the state lasts. The death of the king or the overthrow of the government does not affect sovereignty. This is the reason why people in England used to say “The King is dead, long live the King”.

Dr. Garner has beautifully summed up this idea in the following manner:

“Sovereignty does not cease with the death or temporary dispossession of a particular bearer or the re-organisation of the state but shifts immediately to a new bearer, as the centre of gravity shifts from one part of physical body to another when it undergoes external change”.

(2) Exclusiveness:

By exclusiveness we mean that there can be two sovereigns, in one independent state and if the two sovereigns exist in a state, the unity of that state will be destroyed. There cannot exist another sovereign slate within the existing sovereign state.

(3) All Comprehensiveness:

The State is all comprehensive and the sovereign power is universally applicable. Every individual and every association of individual is subject to the sovereignty of the state. No association or group of individuals, however, rich or powerful it may be, can resist or disobey the sovereign authority.

Sovereignty makes no exception and grants no exemption to anyone. It grants exemptions only in the case of foreign embassies and diplomatic representatives of foreign countries on the reciprocal basis. This does not in any way restrict the sovereignty of the state in the legal sense. The state can abolish and withdraw the diplomatic privileges granted to foreigners.

(4) Inalienability:

Inalienability is another characteristic of sovereignty. Sovereignty is inalienable. By inalienability we mean that the State cannot part with its sovereignty. In other words, we can say that the sovereign does not remain the sovereign or the sovereign state, if he or the state transfers his or its sovereignty to any other person or any other state.

Sovereignty is the life and soul of the state and it cannot be alienated without destroying the state itself. Lieber has very aptly remarked in this connection: “Sovereignty can no more be alienated than a tree can alienate its right to sprout or a man can transfer his life or personality to another without self-destruction”.

(5) Unity:

Unity is the very spirit of Sovereignty. The sovereign state is united just as we are united.

(6) Imperscriptibility:

By imprescriptibility, we mean that if the sovereign does not exercise his sovereignty for a certain period of time, it does not lead to the destruction of sovereignty. It lasts as long as the state lasts.

(7) Indivisibility:

Indivisibility is the life-blood of sovereignty. Sovereignty cannot be divided state, American statesman Calhoun has declared, “Sovereignty is an entire thing; to divide it is to destroy it. It is the supreme power in a state and we might just well divide it is to destroy it.

It is the supreme power in a state and we might just well speak of half square or half a triangle as half a sovereignty”. Gettell, has also very aptly remarked in this regard, “If sovereignty is not absolute, no state exists. If sovereignty is divided, more than one state exists”.

(8) Absoluteness:

Sovereignty is absolute and unlimited. The sovereign is entitled to do whatsoever he likes. Sovereignty is subject to none.

(9) Originality:

By originality we mean that the sovereign wields power by virtue of his own right and not by virtue of anybody’s mercy.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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