NATIONAL sovereignty is defended as a universal and almost sacred principle. Moves that might diminish it are steadfastly resisted.
Weighed against human suffering, a nation's sovereignty usually triumphs. In recent history nothing has illuminated this conflict more poignantly than the plight of the Iraqi Kurds.
But many developments of our time challenge the validity of the principle of national sovereignty.
Communications technology, pollution, radioactive debris, the flow of money, the power of religious or secular ideas, AIDS, the traffic in drugs and terrorism are only a few of the phenomena that pay scant attention to national borders or sovereignty.
At the moment only a massive U.S.-led military relief effort is effectively delivering aid to the Kurds.
In the end it seems likely that the only practical way to give continued and sufficient aid to them (and the Iraqi Shiites) will be to enlist the cooperation of Saddam Hussein, who caused the catastrophe in the first place.
Meanwhile, the United Nations deplores and condemns but cannot act at the political and military levels. U.N. and voluntary relief agencies must wrestle with political obstacles when all their energies and resources should be concentrated on getting immediate help to the afflicted.
And U.N. peacekeeping operations have, so far, little or no standing in humanitarian matters.
Although political and military factors as well as the difficulties of terrain, access and weather make the Kurds' suffering unusually hard to end, the standoff between national sovereignty and concern for human rights is sickeningly familiar.
Claims for the primacy of sovereignty are usually based on Article 2, paragraph 7 of the Charter. "Nothing contained in the present Charter," it reads, "shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter."
Many U.N. states, including permanent members of the Security Council, have domestic situations that predispose them against weakening this principle.
National sovereignty, however, is almost everywhere in retreat. In Western Europe it seems about to become a thing of the past.
In a development inconceivable a few years ago, the United Nations recently supervised national elections in Nicaragua and Haiti.
We are constantly reminded of growing global interdependence. It is thus all the more strange that concern for human suffering and human rights often tends to stop at borders.
Minorities can still be freely persecuted and attacked within national boundaries. International aid and relief to victims of disorders or repressions can be denied for all sorts of national reasons.
The plight of Iraq's Kurds and Shiites is particularly paradoxical because they are the victims of a government that was recently outlawed and militarily defeated as a result of U.N. decisions.
The immediate task is to bring them help by the most effective and speediest means possible.
When that is done, is it totally naive or irresponsible to suggest that U.N. members put the more basic question on their agenda?
Brian Urquhart, scholar in residence at the Ford Foundation, was U.N. Under Secretary General for Special Political Affairs.