This is an NFSA Digital Learning resource. See all Digital Learning websites.
Mabo home
What is sovereignty?
Sovereignty is best defined as a sphere of authority and autonomy - the legitimate power to govern. It is often said that whatever the institutions of government, sovereignty resides in the people and it is the people who determine how they will be governed. This is the internal aspect of sovereignty. Sovereignty also has an external aspect. The people as a sovereign entity should be respected in their autonomy and should be allowed to determine their relationship with other sovereign peoples. This is often referred to as the right of peoples to self-determination. In the international system of states, these principles of self-determination and independence form the basis of international relations and international law.

Under the international system, it is accepted that each state has the right to self-determination. However, the right to self-determination is a right of 'peoples', not states, because it is the people that are sovereign. In international human rights instruments, this principle is expressed in the first Article:
'All peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.'
(The International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), article 1 and The International Convention on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), article 1)

Therefore, self-determination is asserted by non-state actors including Indigenous peoples. It is included at Article 3 of the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples currently being considered by United Nations committees.

From an external perspective, Australia is seen as a sovereign entity in the international community of states. But from an internal perspective, Australia must negotiate the ways in which sovereignty is to be exercised - whether it is to be shared, and how it is be administered. Formally, under the Australian Constitution, sovereignty is shared between the federal and state governments and between the three separate arms of government - the legislature (the Parliament); the judiciary (the courts) and the executive (the government). Informally, some functions of government are also reserved at the local level, to local government. Each of these separate arms of government has a sphere of authority and autonomy, which is respected by the others. Through these systems of federalism and separation of powers, power is divided to ensure that the rights of the people are protected and that the institutions of government reflect regional differences.
Keywords: human rights, International Convention, sovereignty

Author: Strelein, Lisa