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Territorial Integrity Reconsidered

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One of the defining features of today’s international system is the prevalence of the norm of territorial integrity. This concept and its implications have become especially evident recently with disputes over sovereignty in the South China Sea and the Crimean Peninsula.

Simply put, territorial integrity as envisioned in the present world is the strict idea that a country’s borders cannot be changed by force. Boundaries are sacrosanct can cannot be violated or modified due to warfare.This concept has found its way into international law, through uti possidetis, the principle that whatever territory a state owns at the end of a conflict or era (as provided for via war or treaty) is thus formalized as its permanent territory. Since this principle has taken effect in 1945 after the Second World War, it has become taboo to change borders by force and countries have had their boundaries frozen since. Furthermore, newly independent countries have had to live with their borders, even if those borders were totally arbitrary and followed no clear ethnic or geographical logic, as was the case of many African countries. The International Court of Justice rationalized this, ruling in Burkina-Faso v Mali (1986) that 

[Uti possidetis] is a general principle, which is logically connected with the phenomenon of obtaining independence, wherever it occurs. Its obvious purpose is to prevent the independence and stability of new states being endangered by fratricidal struggles provoked by the changing of frontiers following the withdrawal of the administering power.

All this is in stark contrast to the prevalent understanding of norms of territorial change before the First World War. It was quite common for countries to lose and gain territory before this time. Such a strict interpretation of territorial sovereignty and integrity has numerous downsides to it, as has been recognized by multiple statesman and thinkers. In 2001, Prince Hans of Liechtenstein said

Let us accept the fact that states have lifecycles similar to those of human beings who created them. Hardly any Member State of the United Nations has existed within its present borders for longer than five generations. The attempt to freeze human evolution has in the past been a futile undertaking and has probably brought about more violence than if such a process had been controlled peacefully. Restrictions on self-determination threaten not only democracy itself but the state which seeks its legitimization in democracy.

One of the most obvious downsides to the concept of a permanent territorial integrity is that it prevents the “natural” emergence of new states when old states have failed, as was the case with Somalia, making it difficult for Somaliland to obtain recognition. It also prevents the emergence of new states due to successful rebellions because the rump government can strongly insist on the norm of territorial integrity and prevent the recognition of the new state. It also de-incentivizes the rump government from signing any treaty recognizing the new state since it has a strong moral and legal argument for holding onto all of what it considers its sovereign territory, in theory.

Most importantly, it delays the transformation of a de facto territorial situation into a de jure situation, where one country controls territory that is claimed by another country.The result is frozen conflicts and border disputes lasting decades instead of both countries formalizing the de facto control they have over various territories and recognizing reality. There was a certain logic to pre-contemporary treaties that still is application to the present- the formal cessation of territory in writing allowed two countries to get onto the business of peace and trade without the continuous ambiguity and conflict created by a decades long unresolved territorial dispute.

This is not to deny that there are many benefits of the norm of territorial integrity. It creates a stable international order in allowing a country to focus on internal development instead of worrying about its very existence. It has allowed various countries to exist that would not have had a chance of existing in a less favorable international legal environment. Nonetheless, as pointed out previously, it is important to recognize the downsides of the norm of territorial integrity without advocating a brutal world where countries frequently conquer or are conquered. Such an unstable situation is not to anybody’s benefit.

Instead we should turn back to the lessons of 17th, 18th, and 19th century politics, in which conquests occurred gradually via a formalized framework that generally limited radical change or rapacious acquisitions while still allowing for changes. An element of this system was a notion of the balance of power, which is useful for visualizing the world even today. More important, we have to turn back to the thought of Metternich. Metternich, an Austrian diplomat and statesman in the Napoleonic Era argued that instead of giving a carte blanche to unlimited conquest in the style of Napoleon, countries ought to change territories via a more legitimate process in which the defeated country would recognize the facts on the ground via a treaty that would deprive it of territory within reason and without the radical alteration of the newly acquired territory’s customs. Metternich made a distinction between what he called conquests via facti by which he meant illegitimate territorial acquisitions without treaty and conquêtes consommées, which refer to territorial acquisitions made through treaty, whether through diplomatic processes or through losing a war.The United States itself was born in this way via treaty after a successful war. The current insistence on countries to refuse to recognize the facts on the ground is closely bound with the norm of territorial integrity which deems a country’s boundaries to be sacred. If countries and rulers thought more realistically about this norm, perhaps they would be more amiable to de jure recognition of facts on the ground, without necessarily acceding to unrealistic demands.


Written by Akhipill

May 14, 2014 at 9:29 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

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