Tragedy of commons

There has been a long piece published in Al Jazeera by a World Bank ‘responsible’ Inger Anderson yesterday. The article is about her impressions gained during her visit to Gaza. The way she formulated the (solution to the) problem (namely, the vicious cycle of construction and deconstruction, Israeli siege and occupation), illustrates well the abstract being of sovereignty and that of responsibility. It is our collective and historic responsibility to step up support and mobilise a response. (…) I am convinced that the World Bank Group can play a transformational role in the Palestinian territories (…) As a development institution, it is both a mandate and a responsibility. (…) In cooperation with the Palestinian Authority (PA), and in coordination with the EU, UN and other international partners, the World Bank Group intends to play its full role and assist the Palestinians in mobilising the resources with a view to short and long term needs.

It is like a mission statement issued by a business-enterprise. However, the real tragedy of the Palestinian people is the number of sovereigns disposing over their past, present and future. Israel, the PNA, Hamas, the international community, each and every actor claims to control the decision-making, set real and abstract borders, define priorities and spend the collected taxes and foreign funds according to their own priorities.

‘When the population of a particular area obeys more than one institution or controlling authority’, multiple sovereignty emerges (Tilly 1973/1975, p 67-78). Theda Skocpol doubts  the way Tilly links ‘multiple sovereignty’ to revolutions, and argues that it can explain civil wars, international conquest (even the EU enlargement for that matter) and national (separatist) movements as well (Skocpol 1994: 109). Trying to define the undefinable, Krasner (1999) listed four components of sovereignty: international legal sovereignty (recognition from states); Westphalian sovereignty (non-interference in IR); domestic sovereignty (the ability of a state to maintain the monopoly of the use of violence within its territory) and interdependence sovereignty (the capacity of a government to control the intra-borders movements and processes such as globalization).

Building on Krasner’s categorization, sovereignty is not just multiple, as illustrated by the Palestinian case, it can be multi-layered as well. Indeed, the relations between the international organizations, Israel, the PNA (masters of sovereignty) on the one hand and the Palestinian people (subjects of sovereignty) on the other hand are complex enough to see the difficulties of defining sovereignty and the difference between its descriptive and normative understanding (Karp 2008). It applies to responsibility as well. It sounds nice in a journal article or policy paper (normative understanding of responsibility), but makes no sense to people (descriptive version of responsibility) that hardly experienced any sovereign being able to take real, personal and legal responsibility for the Palestinian sovereignty (independence, self-determination). If sovereignty also belongs to the people as argued by Karma Nabulsi and if the related authority is exercised by the people (through resistance to repressive and unrepresentative rule), a real ‘tragedy of commons’ problem emerges:

Sources: Andersen, Inger (2014) ‘What I saw in Gaza’ Al-Jaazeera online, 6 November, 2014; Karp, D. J. (2008) ‘The utopia and reality of sovereignty: social reality, normative IR and ‘Organized Hypocrisy’’, Review of International Studies, 34 (2), 313-335.; Krasner, S. D. (1999) Sovereignty: organised hypocrisy. Chichester: Princeton University Press; Nabulsi, K. (2004) ‘The struggle for sovereignty’, The Guardian, 23 June, 2004; Skocpol, Theda (1994) Social Revolution in the modern word. Cambridge; Charles Tilly (1975) From Mobilization to Revolution. New York: McGraw-Hil (to see the original paper from 1973: Revolution and Collective violence).


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