What is Sovereignty, Definition, Features & Characteristics

Sun, 02/10/2013 - 06:57 -- Umar Farooq

What is Sovereignty?

Sovereignty is one of the most essential and unique features of the state. It is the ultimate and supreme law and policy making authority of the state. It is the soul of state. It is that element of the state, whit distinguishes the state from all, other associations. The word 'Sovereignty' is derived from Latin word "Superanaus" which means supreme. Sovereignty (of the state) means the supremacy of the will of the state as expressed by its laws over all the individuals and associations within its boundaries and independence against all foreign control and intervention. No people can form a state unless they sovereign. In other words there can be no state without sovereignty.

Definition of Sovereignty

There have been a number of definitions of the term Sovereignty.

  1. Aristotle says it is the supreme power in the state. According to Jean Bodin it is the supreme power over citizens and subjects unrestrained by law.
  2. Hugo Grotus, the Father of the International law, says it is the supreme political power vested in him whose acts are not subjects to any other, whose will cannot be over-ridden.
  3. In short, we can say that sovereignty is the supreme, unlimited and absolute power of the state.

Feature, Attributes & Characteristics of Sovereignty

Following are the some important features, attributes & characteristics of sovereignty

Absoluteness or Unlimited

Absoluteness is an important attribute of sovereignty which means that there are no limitations what so ever on the sovereignty of the state. All associations and groups living and functioning within the state are under the control of the state. There is no internal or external control over the state. Some writers do not agree to this idea. They say that in the modern world such as omnipotent state cannot exist. Besides, such a state would be very dangerous for international peace and order.


It means sovereignty cannot be divided. There is a famous saying to divide sovereignty is to Destroy it Just as there cannot be half a human being or half a triangle, so there cannot be half sovereignty. In 1971 East Pakistan separated from East-Pakistan that is sovereignty divided.


Universality is another characteristic of sovereignty; it means that the sovereignty of the State covers every individual, group and association within its boundary. Nobody can claim exemption from sovereignty of the state. There is one exemption to this rule. It is said that the ambassador of a country, his residence and his embassy are exempted from the sovereignty of the state. This is called the Principle of Extraterritoriality. Infact this is a concession and an exemption. Every state in the world wishes to maintain peace. For this purpose they believe in the freedom of the diplomats, without which it would not be possible for any state to know what is being done in another state. Similarly every state wants maximum concessions to its diplomats. So we can say that this principle is based on understanding among the civilized nations. It is not an exemption because if a country feels that this principle is being misused, it has every right to withdraw it.


Since the state is permanent institution, so its sovereignty is also permanent. In very rare cases a state dies or becomes extinct. This happens in case of defeat or conquests. Besides, there is much difference between the state and the government. One remains permanent while the other changes. There is a very famous English saying: The Icing is dead: long live king.


It means that within one state there can be only one sovereign. Even if there more than one, there will be a struggle and a result of this one will exclude the other? There is very famous saying: even if there are two riders, the reins will be in the hands of one. In Persian they say there cannot be two swords in a sheath (scabbard). Somebody has very rightly said that ten beggars can sleep in a blanket but two kings cannot live in a kingdom.


In civil law there is a provision that if ownership over a piece of property is not exercised for certain period (15 years or 20 years) the ownership is lost. But there is no such time period for the exercise of sovereignty of a state over a particular area.


This means sovereignty cannot be transferred. Just like a person cannot transfer his life without killing himself, so the state cannot transfer. It is sovereignty without destroying itself.

Kinds of Sovereignty

Following are five kinds of sovereignty

  1. Nominal and Real Sovereignty
  2. Legal Sovereignty
  3. Political Sovereignty
  4. Popular Sovereignty
  5. De Facto and Jure Sovereignty