The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.


A State’s sovereignty is based on the exclusive power that it exercises over its territory and its nationals. In international law, States themselves (i.e., governments) write the rules that they will be required to follow.

The principle of sovereignty regulates interstate relations. It is a fundamental rule that promotes pacific coexistence. It was sanctified by the Charter of the UN, which states that the organization is based on the “sovereign equality” of all Member States (Art. 2.1 of the UN Charter). Hence, all States must respect the prerogatives of all other States in their policies over their own population and their own territory.

It follows from this principle that no State may “intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any other State” (Art. 2.7 of the UN Charter).

However, nothing prevents States from voluntarily limiting their sovereignty. This is the case, for instance, when they ratify international conventions. When they do so, they bind themselves to the provisions of the conventions, thereby agreeing to restrict or set aside their sovereignty on the issues addressed in such texts—for instance, human rights or humanitarian law conventions. A large majority of States have signed international conventions that establish:

  • rules and standards of behavior that are applicable to State activities, within their own territories;
  • international mechanisms and systems to monitor and control the implementation of these norms; and
  • international organs that rule on complaints and provide recourses against national acts that violate or contradict international standards.

Many such international organs or control mechanisms were set up to monitor and control human rights and humanitarian law. In ratifying the conventions, States agree to submit to their decisions.

States often criticize other States when they divert these institutions’ goals by using them to weaken a government diplomatically, instead of in defense of human rights.

With regard to relations between a State and individuals, the principle of sovereignty is no longer the golden rule. By ratifying conventions that establish international standards for the treatment of individuals, States have voluntarily renounced part of their sovereignty. In theory, individuals can have recourse against their government in front of international organs, whether judicial or not, without the rulings of such institutions being considered interference. However, these mechanisms are not easily implemented.

In times of conflict, States entrust impartial humanitarian organizations with the official responsibility for the protection of victims through the Geneva Conventions and other humanitarian texts.

Fundamental guaranteesHigh Contracting PartiesHuman rightsIndividual recourseInternational conventionsInternational humanitarian lawInternational lawInterventionLegal status of parties to the conflictNationalityProtecting powersRespect for international humanitarian law

For Additional Information: Annan, Kofi. “Peacekeeping, Military Intervention, and National Sovereignty in Internal Armed Conflict.” In Hard Choices: Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention , edited by Jonathan Moore, 55–71. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.

Hehir, J. Bryan. “Military Intervention and National Sovereignty: Recasting the Relationship.” In Hard Choices: Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention , edited by Jonathan Moore, 29–54. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.