Environmental Victims and State Sovereignty: A Normative Analysis

By Penz, Peter | Social Justice, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Environmental Victims and State Sovereignty: A Normative Analysis


Penz, Peter, Social Justice


Introduction

TODAY'S WORLD IS CHARACTERIZED BY DRAMATIC INSTANCES OF PEOPLE BEING poisoned by radiation (Chernobyl in the Ukraine), deadly industrial gases (Bhopal in India), industrial pollution of water (Minamata Bay in Japan), and toxic land-dumps (Love Canal in the United States). Less dramatic but more pervasive are the persistent forms of poisoning by industrial pollution (industrial cities in Eastern Europe, the cotton fields of Central Asia, the "petrochemical corridor" along the Mississippi in Louisiana in the United States) and disease caused by untreated sewage. More than one million people are displaced every year from their environment by development projects that put these environments to new uses, such as valleys flooded by dams and forests exclusively reserved for commercial logging (Cernea and Guggenheim, 1993: 2). Slower, but at least as extensive in impact, are environmental processes that are undermining the livelihood of people and displacing them: desertification (as in the Sahel), appropriation of land for commercial uses, forcing subsistence farmers on fragile soil to reduce the fallow periods and thus impair the soil's fertility, and flooding caused by upstream erosion (as in the Brahmaputra Delta due to Himalayan deforestation). In the future, there is the prospect of upstream states diverting water for irrigation and depriving downstream users (e.g., on the Tigris and Euphrates), of some countries (e.g., Libya) overusing regional aquifers and creating shortages for neighboring populations, and, most serious of all, of regional declines in agricultural productivity and coastal and delta inundation due to global warming. All these processes, which represent a pandemic pattern, involve environmental victims. (For one survey, although now a little dated, see Jacobson, 1989.)

Protecting people against becoming environmental victims is clearly a task of the first order of importance in the world today. Is this compatible with the centrality of the principle of state sovereignty in international relations? This is the question that this article addresses. First, the case for state sovereignty will be considered from an environmental angle, with particular concern for environmental victims. This is followed by a critique of state sovereignty. It is an immanent critique in that it begins within a perspective that emphasizes the strengths of state sovereignty. In the end, however, it is rejected in favor of a federal system of divided authority, extended down to the local level, and up to the global level.

Some might argue that a normative critique of state sovereignty has little real-world significance, since capitalist globalization (as well as the politics of environmental interdependence and universal human rights) is in any case eroding state sovereignty. In defense of this analysis, first note that increasing economic interdependence may be as much a matter of state choices as is the erosion of state power and, second, that erosion does not mean disappearance. Keohane and his collaborators have argued that "neither sovereignty nor interdependence" is about to disappear (Levy, Keohane, and Haas, 1993: 417). The tension between the processes of erosion and the determination of power holders to assert sovereignty suggests that it may be timely to review state sovereignty as a contribution to the question of whether, for example, environmental and international justice activists should work to shore it up or, alternatively, to transform it into something new.

The acceptance or rejection of state sovereignty, also with reference specifically to the environment, has been the subject of controversy. On the one hand, there are those who argue for working with state sovereignty to develop environmental protection regimes and even for strengthening state sovereignty (e.g., Piddington, 1989; Keohane, Haas, and Levy, 1993: 4; Commission on Global Governance, 1995: 68-72). Others have argued that ecological processes do not respect state borders and that state sovereignty hinders the effective environmental protection that the scope of the ecological processes requires (e. …

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