On the Territorial Rights of States

Noûs 35 (s1):300-326 (2001)
Abstract
When officials of some political society portray their state as legitimate - and when do they not! - they intend to be laying claim to a large body of rights, the rights in which their state's legitimacy allegedly consists. The rights claimed are minimally those that states must exercise if they are to retain effective control over their territories and populations in a world composed of numerous autonomous states. Often the rights states are trying to claim in asserting their legitimacy go far beyond this minimum. But whether a state's claims are modest or extravagant, the rights claimed invariably fall into three categories. The first category is a set of rights held over or against those persons who fall within the state's claimed legal jurisdiction - what I will call rights over subjects. The second is a set of rights claimed against those persons without the state's jurisdiction - what we can call rights against aliens. And the third category is a set of rights held over a particular geographical territory (whose extent largely determines the scope of the state's jurisdiction) - call these rights over territory. The rights states claim in these three categories jointly define their conception of the sovereignty that they (or their governments or institutions) enjoy, sovereignty that is more extensive (strong, absolute) as the rights asserted in these categories are more numerous and wide-ranging. It is principally on the third of these categories - on the nature and possible moral bases for the claims states make over geographical territories - that I will focus in this essay. The modern state is a territorial entity, and it claims to be legitimately so. Sidgwick was surely correct when he wrote that "it seems essential to the modern conception of a State that its government should exercise supreme dominion over a particular portion of the earth's surface ... Indeed, in modern political thought the connection between a political society and its territory is so close that the two notions almost blend." Common sense seems to view the territoriality of the modern state as natural and unquestionable. That, perhaps, explains why so little has been written, either by contemporary theorists or by the authors of the classics of modern political philosophy, on the moral bases of the modern state's claimed rights over territory. States typically claim not only legal authority over their territories (i.e., that their rights over those territories should be affirmed by international law), but moral authority as well - at the very least insofar as the relevant principles of international law are thought themselves to have moral weight. My concern here, then, will be with the possible moral bases for the kinds of claims made over geographical territories by typical modern states.
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DOI 10.1111/0029-4624.35.s1.12
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