Territorial disputes: key concepts “sovereignty” and “state” [Post 2]

In order to better understand what a territorial dispute is we have to be familiar with basic vocabulary used in law, politics and international relations. Two key words must be introduced: STATE and SOVEREIGNTY. That is because in all territorial disputes we will have at least one STATE claiming exclusive SOVEREIGNTY over a territory. 

International public law offers a definition in article 1 of the Montevideo Convention of Rights and Duties of states (1933) that declares: 

The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a) a permanent population; b) a defined territory; c) government; and d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.” 

In tune with this definition the Oxford Dictionary of Law says: 

to qualify as a state the entity must have: (1) a permanent population […]; (2) a defined territory […]; (3) an effective government.” Martin, Elizabeth A. and Law, Jonathan, ed. 2006. A Dictionary of Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Therefore, a STATE has three key elements:


In very simple terms, that means that in principle: 

  • Territories without people cannot be a state.
  • People without territory cannot be a state (e.g. Tibetans).
  • A group of people living in a territory without a government (independent from any other source of law) cannot be a state (e.g. Catalonia).

These three elements (territory, population and government) require one specific characteristic to be considered a fully fleshed state. What is that characteristic? It is SOVEREIGNTY.There are many definitions of SOVEREIGNTY. A current and comprehensive definition of SOVEREIGNTY says: 

[Sovereignty is] a Supreme authority in a state. In any state sovereignty is vested in the institution, person, or body having the ultimate authority to impose law on everyone else in the state and the power to alter any pre-existing law. […] In international law, it is an essential aspect of sovereignty that all states should have supreme control over their internal affairs […]” Martin, Elizabeth A. and Law, Jonathan, ed. 2006. A Dictionary of Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bringing these two concepts together: STATE and SOVEREIGNTY we have that a SOVEREIGN STATE is a group of people (POPULATION) who lives in a piece of land (TERRITORY) and has a common government EXCLUSIVELY able to create the highest law for them in that land.

Therein, there is a territorial dispute when more than one government (or group of people) aims to EXCLUSIVELY have sovereignty over the same territory.

NOTE: This post is based on Jorge Emilio Núñez, “Territorial Disputes and State Sovereignty: International Law and Politics,” London and New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2020 (forthcoming)Previous published research monograph about territorial disputes and sovereignty by the author, Jorge Emilio Núñez, “Sovereignty Conflicts and International Law and Politics: A Distributive Justice Issue,” London and New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2017.

NEXT POST: State and its elements.

Tuesday 17th September 2019 

Dr Jorge Emilio Núñez

Twitter: @London1701

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