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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchWestphalian Vs. Indigenous Sovereignty: Challenging Colonial Territorial Governance

Westphalian Vs. Indigenous Sovereignty: Challenging Colonial Territorial Governance

Authors: Harald Bauder, Rebecca Mueller

Affiliation: Toronto Metropolitan University, Graduate Program in Immigration and Settlement Studies, Toronto Metropolitan University

Organization/Publisher: Geopolitics

Date/Place: May 5, 2021/UK

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 19


Keywords: Sovereignty, Westphalian Nation-state, Indigenous Peoples 


Sovereignty is a contested concept when comparing the common Westphalian model to indigenous sovereignty. Recently, indigenous sovereignty has been invoked in the process of decolonization, allowing for an examination of the effects of ongoing settler colonialism. However, it is important to recognize that sovereignty, like any other concept, is a human construct and not an inherent necessity. The question then arises: what are the differences between indigenous and Westphalian sovereignties, and can the former be subverted?

Westphalian sovereignty places emphasis on territorial control rather than personal bondage. This emphasis was also employed during colonial conquests to justify the expansion into foreign lands, thereby undermining indigenous governance based on the doctrine of terra nullius. As a result, indigenous peoples were denied any form of sovereignty, although it can be argued that settlers in North America initially did not adhere to this doctrine. European colonizers acknowledged that indigenous peoples had centers of authority similar to those found in European monarchies. However, as Canada and the United States grew, their histories were rewritten to reflect a different dynamic.

Another way to appreciate the divergence between these two perspectives is to examine the instrumentalization of race. Territorial sovereignty in Europe may have evolved through interactions with the outside world, but racial hierarchies played a crucial role in colonial expansion and the subjugation of defeated peoples. These hierarchies effectively dispossessed indigenous peoples while affirming European dominance over sovereignty. Thus, from this perspective, Westphalian sovereignty was not imported from European political experience on the continent, but rather constructed on imperial frontiers.

The loss of sovereignty among indigenous peoples does not imply a lack of sovereignty from the outset. Treaties imposed by Canada and the United States were legal mechanisms used to erase indigenous sovereignty and impose territorially focused Westphalian sovereignty instead. However, this poses a problem as the Westphalian system does not recognize the coexistence of two sovereignties in the same region, thereby eliminating the possibility of shared jurisdiction.

A country like Canada may claim to be inclusive of its people, but a nation-state founded on liberal democracy can still assimilate its minorities. The majority settler population could easily overshadow indigenous peoples who have been legally stripped of self-governance and sovereignty. The current Westphalian status quo creates an unequal relationship between the sovereign nation-state and any minority group, compelling these minorities to participate in the system either implicitly or explicitly. In response, indigenous advocates have called for self-governance and land rights, aiming to minimize their participation in the Westphalian system and diminish its credibility.

The 2007 UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples marked a significant milestone, as it was driven by indigenous groups seeking self-determination. However, it still reinforces the superior position of state sovereignty, even though it acknowledges a form of sovereignty distinct from the Westphalian model. Nonetheless, given that the nation-state remains the prevailing reality, the hierarchy of control assigns the Westphalian system the highest status. 

In the end, the Westphalian definition of sovereignty perpetuates colonial relations between states and the colonized. It is crucial to redefine sovereignty in a way that eliminates exploitative and colonial dynamics. One approach is to reframe sovereignty with an emphasis on social and cultural dimensions, rather than strictly adhering to legal parameters. Basing sovereignty on community and social structures allows for a broader perspective not confined by legality. However, the Westphalian system, which is rooted in legality and territorial control, fails to recognize this alternative formula.

The struggle of the Inuit people in the Arctic exemplifies how indigenous communities can clash with Arctic nation-states over their rights. Therefore, it is essential to redefine sovereignty beyond the realm of laws, rights, and the traditional sovereignty paradigm to prevent indigenous sovereignty from being confined within rigid frameworks. Indigenous sovereignty rejects the monopoly of the state over decision-making and instead relies on relationships and social networks, allowing for interference in governmental affairs. This perspective is closely tied to the indigenous peoples’ relationship with the land, where no single institution can assert control over territory for resource extraction. The absence of territoriality in indigenous sovereignty sets it apart from the Westphalian approach, particularly in terms of its approach to land and people. Indigenous sovereignty is not a monolithic concept; it can be reevaluated and discussed in alignment with diverse agendas and goals.

Self-determination can be defined as the pursuit of maximum autonomy, aiming to reclaim an ideal scenario from before colonialism and driven by communal values. Indigenous sovereignty can also be understood as the freedom to exist and act without interference from external forces. The diversity of perspectives within indigenous sovereignty transcends the boundaries of state formalities. Ultimately, the goal is to subvert the concept of sovereignty and free it from the Westphalian status quo, while also seeking liberation from colonialism.

The Westphalian system is rooted in Eurocentric concepts of statehood that emerged in Europe and were subsequently imposed on the rest of the world through colonialism. Indigenous sovereignty surpasses this limited framework by emphasizing social and cultural aspects over purely legal ones. By moving beyond the Eurocentric perspective, room for creativity opens up, recognizing interdependencies between various actors, communal relationships with the land, and challenging the universality of the Westphalian concept. It is worth contemplating whether the concept of sovereignty should be completely discarded due to its overwhelming Western background. However, upon closer examination, it can also be seen as a tool that can be appropriated and subverted to advance indigenous claims and interests.

Another question worth exploring is whether the indigenous and Westphalian conceptions of sovereignty can be reconciled in some form. However, a closer look reveals that these two conceptions differ fundamentally. Maintaining the Westphalian state system will perpetuate the preservation of Eurocentric state dominance, while granting indigenous populations a genuine form of self-governance, as outlined in the UN declaration, requires significant development. Like any political concept, sovereignty has the capacity to evolve in response to political realities and ongoing challenges. Despite the continued dominance of Westphalian sovereignty in international relations and governance discourse, it reinforces the colonial domination of different peoples, whether domestically or globally.

By: Omar Fili, CIGA Research Assistant



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