Sovereignty in its widest sense means the supreme, absolute and uncontrollable power by which any independent State is governed. Through the years, the concept of sovereignty has evolved to include not only internal or territorial sovereignty but also permanent sovereignty over natural resources. Fundamentally, it means the State can freely dispose of its natural wealth and resources within its territory. Correlatively, the principle brings about the State duty to properly manage its wealth and natural resources as well as due care of the environment. Derived from this principle is also the right of the State to pursue its own socioeconomic and environmental policies.
The growth of the principle of permanent sovereignty over natural resources is closely associated with two main concerns at the time of the creation of the United Nations in 1945. These are (i) the economic development of developing countries; and (ii) the self-determination of colonial peoples. The principle progressively developed that by 1972, the well-known principle of the Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment declares the sovereign right of States to exploit their own natural resources pursuant to their own environmental policies. However, the right is qualified by the obligation not to cause any extraterritorial environmental harm. Principle 2 of the Rio Declaration on the Environment and Development restates Principle 21 as mentioned and confirms that sovereignty does not only give rise to State rights but to State obligations and responsibilities as well.
Emerging environmental challenges such as climate change mitigation, food and water security and disaster management add new dimensions to environmental issues. No country can deal with those challenges alone. States must continually identify common priorities to deal with those concerns. It must enhance coordination among states and even challenge the dichotomy between regional and national interests, reexamining principles of sovereignty and non-interference in the context of environmental challenges. Asean response in this regard are the on-going cooperative efforts to promote conservation activities which include, among others, (i) The “Heart of Borneo” initiative to create a transboundary biodiversity sanctuary straddling Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Indonesia against illegal logging and clearing land for palm oil plantations; (ii) The Asean Heritage Parks program which consists of identified and proclaimed protected areas of high conservation importance in each member country, preserving in total a complete spectrum of representative ecosystems of the Asean region; (iii) The Asean Turtle Conservation and Protection Memorandum of Understanding between the Philippines and Malaysia to jointly manage, protect and conserve all species of turtle and their habitats in the region through unified management, conservation and protection strategies; (iv) The Sulu Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion as part of the Asean Marine Heritage Areas about which conservation plans for joint implementation are in place to protect and conserve the coral triangle bounded by the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.
The involvements of Asean countries mentioned above demonstrate the right of states, within the framework of other principles and rules of international law, to manage natural resources in accord with developmental and environmental policies and objectives. It confirms that a state’s sovereignty over its natural resources involves a number of duties. Among them: (i) The duty to ensure benefits for the whole population and not to compromise the rights of future generations; (ii) The duty to prevent harm to the environment of neighbouring states or areas beyond national jurisdiction. This implies a prudent use of natural resources not only to protect biodiversity but also to prevent and control pollution. Gradually, it has become recognized that under international law, natural resources management is no longer exclusively within the jurisdiction of individual states and that sovereignty is a responsibility and not an absolute right.
There is much discourse nowadays about sovereignty vis-a-vis natural resources and economic growth, natural resources and conflict in use and natural resource governance mechanisms; proof that the 21st century marks an increasing and continuing appreciation of the concept of sovereignty over natural resources. Looking back, the decades after the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment could well be described as decades of clarifying and updating the earlier economic and political concept of sovereignty and integrating it into the present legal thinking—a dynamic response to changed circumstances and insights in the changing world.