Reviews of 

Human Rights in the Emerging Global Order:

A New Sovereignty?

Human Rights Quarterly 21.4 (1999) 1134-1135

Book Review

Human Rights in the Emerging Global Order: A New Sovereignty? by Kurt Mills (MacMillan Press/Great Britain; St. Martin's Press/USA, 1998).

Kurt Mills has written an important and thought provoking book. The thesis that Mills presents is that we live in what he calls an "Age of Ambiguity." (1) The primary reason for this ambiguity is that there are tremendous changes and challenges to the notion of state sovereignty. As he boldly states near the outset: "The days of sovereignty as an absolute ordering principle are over." (2)

Mills provides a number of phenomena that have led to this erosion of state power. These include environmental degradation from sources beyond a particular state's territorial boundaries; surges in human migrations that so many states have not been able to control; the ever-growing influence and power of multinational corporations; a world economic system that has gone far in making domestic actors seemingly irrelevant; and so forth. What is not clear is what will be filling this vacuum. Some of the powers traditionally performed by states have been moving upwards to regional and international organizations while others have been moving downwards to ethnic groups, nongovernmental organizations, and even to individuals. Of course, some state power is staying right at home, but Mills' point is that instead of seeing one version of sovereignty, we will be experiencing many variations on this theme.

What should be of particular interest to readers of this journal is Mills' notion that these various sovereigns are legitimate only to the extent that they protect the human rights of individuals. (3) If I have a disagreement with Mills, it is that I would draw a different line with respect to where "is" and "ought" meet. Although I am in complete agreement with Mills' point that the explosion of human rights instruments over the past half-century has done much to infringe on the notion of state sovereignty, (4) I would also go on to say that this has been true much more in theory than in actual practice. Certainly, Mills does an excellent job of buttressing his argument by explaining how interventions in such countries as Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, and now Kosovo, have gone far in creating this new sovereignty--one where the protection of human rights supersedes the sovereignty of states.

The problem, however, is that the list of counter examples would be every bit as long (if not much longer). Just to use the letter A, there have been resounding non-interventions in Angola, Afghanistan, and Algeria, notwithstanding the gross and systematic human rights abuses being carried out in those countries. It is noteworthy that the "hands off" approach taken by the West is not based on any deep concerns with violating the sovereignty of these states. In some manner, we are still witnessing this new sovereignty, but, aside from the high visibility cases noted earlier, what has replaced the mantra of state sovereignty in so many locales around the world is complete and utter indifference. The governments in these countries would certainly [End Page 1134] fail Mills' "legitimacy" test, but have our own actions been any better?

One of the key points about this book is not only the substantial number of topics that Mills addresses in his examination of the new sovereignty, but also the insight and new ideas that he provides that give the reader a different take on such issues as self-determination, on a preferred system for making asylum determinations, on the "obligation" (rather than the "right") of humanitarian intervention, and so forth. The reader (or at least this reader) is continually being challenged to think differently about a host of phenomena. This, perhaps, will only add more ambiguity, but that is the age in which we live.

—Mark Gibney, Belk Distinguished Professor, University of North Carolina-Asheville


1. Kurt Mills, Human Rights in the Emerging Global Order: A New Sovereignty? 53 (1998).

2. Id. at 3.

3. Id. at 42-43.

4. Id. at 39-40.


Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 14, 2000, pp. 169-70

Human Rights in the Emerging Global Order: A New Sovereignty?, Kurt Mills (New York/London: St. Martin's and Macmillan Press, 1998), 272 pp., $65 cloth.

The question whether we are witnessing the demise, the renaissance, or the transformation of state sovereignty fuels one of the most heated debates in international politics today. Kurt Mills, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, sides with those who maintain that the power of national governments is irremediably eroding. In the face of challenges from nationalist movements, human migration, and humanitarian intervention, Mills argues, "the days of sovereignty as an absolute ordering principle are over" (p. 3). But it is not clear what, if anything, will replace it. Mills approaches this problem by first exploring the implications of the changing relationship between individuals, communities, states, and the global community and then positing a new notion of sovereignty justified in terms of human rights.

To scrutinize states' functions in the emerging global order, Mills adopts a postmodern approach-even though he expresses reservations about "much of what the postmodern critique proposes" (p. 10). Postmodernism, he says, effectively questions the power structure of the Westphalian international system, grounded in state sovereignty, and makes it possible to entertain other forms of social arrangements. But to avoid the potential overcritical and nihilistic tendencies of postmodern approaches, Mills calls for the development of a "New Sovereignty" grounded in human rights principles. States that do not uphold individual and group rights, he argues, violate their social purpose. They can no longer claim political legitimacy and therefore lose their right to nonintervention. Conversely, a state's external obligations are expressed in the moral duty to admit refugees, stop gross rights violations, and provide humanitarian aid.

Mills's work is both empirical and normative. Empirically, he demonstrates how the international community has, although selectively and sometimes inconsistently, increasingly come to ignore state borders in order to protect human rights. He details how the United Nations and other agencies have begun to circumvent the limitations of sovereignty, as for example in the provision of aid and protection to Somalis displaced in Kenya in the early 1990s. Normatively, Mills carefully addresses the theoretical implications of these developments. He effectively prods the reader to recognize the progressive blurring of the distinction between domestic and international politics and the need to reconceptualize the link between legitimacy and sovereignty. Because many political, economic, and humanitarian problems are transnational in nature, the state-or rather the new sovereignty-can neither insulate itself nor claim absolute jurisdiction.

Yet, Mills's account is not without problems. Intervention and human migration, two of the most important phenomena that, for Mills, show the permeability of our borders, do not justify his conclusion regarding the demise of the state. Since Thucydides' time, the history of international relations has been characterized by intervention and human migration, and since the Treaty of Westphalia territorial sovereignty has repeatedly been challenged, yet never supplanted. If threats to sovereignty are today qualitatively different, what accounts for the difference? Mills does not address this issue, not does he engage with the literature that contests the disappearance of the state.

Although human rights are undeniably gaining momentum in global politics, it remains uncertain to what extent national governments will retain their power. And even if state power is weakening, as Mills argues, it is also unclear whether the ultimate result will be greater protection and promotion of human rights. Although his thesis is not fully persuasive, Mills's thorough study of the problematic relationship between human rights and sovereignty is nonetheless a stimulating addition to an important ongoing discussion.

—Roberto Belloni, University of Denver, Political Studies, December 1999, Vol. 47 Issue 5, pp. 1017-8


Kurt Mills, Human Rights in the Emerging Global Order: a New Sovereignty? (Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1998), xi + 256 pp., £50.00 ISBN 0 333 72127 6.

The author who teaches at the American University in Cairo has revised and updated his doctoral dissertation into a readable and well-researched monograph which raises crucial and critical questions regarding the role of 'state sovereignty' in an increasingly inter-dependent global community. The conflict between the enlarging realm of universal human rights and the narrow self-interest of nation states has bedevilled politics since the end of the Second World War. Mills concentrates on what he terms the New Sovereignty - 'a recognition of this increasing interdependence and a reconceptualization of sovereignty, moving both downward and upward, inward and outward from the state, incorporating human rights as a legitimating factor in the emerging global order'. Discarding traditional concepts of sovereignty which are state-based in favour of ideas which view individuals as the source of state authority, Mills proposes a conception of sovereignty which would incorporate individual and group rights in the interest of a global community. The resulting nexus could intertwine human rights and state sovereignty for the betterment of all societies. This is vastly to be preferred to the present situation of incessant national and international conflicts which place human rights and state sovereignty in perpetual opposition to each other. Mills' interesting analysis questions the immutability of traditional notions of absolute state sovereignty and suggests a 'multi-level, multi-centric, and multi-textured' approach to sovereignty. The book is useful for students of modern history, international law, politics and international relations.

R. K. L. PANJABI, Memorial University of Newfoundland


Excerpt from:

International Politics 36: 551-557 (December 1999)


The political economy of human rights: State sovereignty and humanitarian military intervention in the post-Cold War era


Miami University, Oxford, OH, USA

Tony Evans (ed.), Human Rights: Fifty Years On (New York: St. Martin's, 1998), xiii + 237 pp., Hb $69.95; Kurt Mills, Human Rights in the Emerging Global Order (New York: St. Martin's, 1998), v + 256 pp., Hb $65.00; Thomas G. Weiss, Military-Civilian Interactions: Intervening in Humanitarian Crises (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999), vii + 279 pp., Pb $18.95.

Eroding state sovereignty

In light of the growing number of transnational actors made possible by globalization and changes in communication and technology, the centrality and efficacy of the state has once more become the focus of analysis and dispute.

Some have argued that the state is so weakened by forces beyond its control that it is no longer capable of fulfilling its traditional obligations, especially regarding fundamental rights. And, it is further argued, in many parts of the Third World the state has been stripped of all power and in some cases has "failed" completely. Others contend that in spite of the rapid changes in the global economy, dramatic changes in technology and communication, and resurgent nationalism, the state continues to thrive and even prosper. Both views are probably correct, reflecting the integrative and disintegrative, strengthening and weakening tendencies of globalization.

Human Rights in the Emerging Global Order proceeds from the first view of a weakened state, hence, eroded sovereignty. Mills argues convincingly for a reconceptualized understanding of sovereignty away from its traditional and absolutist notion to a new sovereignty that recognizes individual rights, group and global interests. Mills emphasizes state obligations, on one hand, and international community responsibilities in responding to the rights and interests of citizens, on the other. Accordingly, new global and regional organizations and mechanisms must be put in place to protect human rights internationally.

Mills successfully weaves a rich tapestry depicting a multi-level, multi-centric and multi-textured notion of sovereignty that recognizes various sites of power, interests and ideology. The emphasis on multi-faceted definitions of the state and human rights unifies the Evans' and Mills' volumes. What differentiates them however, is that Mills devotes several chapters to prescribing reforms to better position the United Nations, regional and humanitarian organizations to address human rights protection globally. He calls for closer monitoring and international intervention in conflicts that expose individuals and groups to brutal and extensive human rights abuses. Mills' prescriptions seem to have rightly anticipated the gross violations of human rights and NATO military intervention in Kosovo. It is this almost prophetic element that ties his work to Thomas Weiss' Military-Civilian Interactions: Intervening in Humanitarian Crises.

[Excerpted from pp. 553-4]