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Resolving Territorial Disputes - General Principles

melian          22 June 2015 05:48 AM

All human property can be broadly divided into two types:

  • material and virtual objects created by human labor

  • land and natural resources

While the ethical basis of owning the fruits of one’s labor is more or less clear, the moral justification of land ownership is far from obvious. Virtually all countries were born out of conquest of one nation by another, usually followed by expulsion, enslavement or annihilation of the defeated.

Often the conquest happened in such a distant past that even the memory of the former residents is obliterated (e.g., the genocide of Neanderthals). In some cases, the recent generations have condemned the violent actions of their ancestors. But neither oblivion nor apology can reasonably serve as an ethical basis for land ownership.

This ethical question has practical implications for foreign policy. After the WWI, the western democracies have condemned wars of aggression. Yet, they found no clear principles for resolving territorial disputes between nations. The two principles they officially use – “territorial integrity/national sovereignty” and “the right to self-determination” – are mutually contradictory and are generally applied on ad hoc basis. For example, during the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the NATO enforced the principle of “territorial integrity” in the case of Serbs living within Croatian borders (shortly resulting in their ethnic cleansing). Yet, several years afterwards, it enforced the “right to self-determination” of Albanians living within the borders of Serbia.

Choosing just one of these two principles is not a good option either. For example, preserving “territorial integrity” of former European colonies produced a near permanent civil war and regular attempts at ethnic cleansing in many African and Middle Eastern countries (Iraq is only the latest example). On the other hand, western countries would be unable to consistently follow the “right to self-determination” in all cases (think, for example, about the Muslim suburbs in Paris).

Is there a better approach to resolving territorial disputes?

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Jiro 1 July 2015 09:52 PM

I would generally support the self-determination principle provided that

  • The area is of reasonable size
  • The area is reasonably contiguous
  • The government follows some minimal standards for a good government, such as allowing certain rights
  • The new government is specifically willing to respect the rights of people within its control who don't agree to the self-determination
  • If the old government respects rights, and the area agrees on self-determination because of an invasion, settlement, genocide, or other acts that the old government considers illegal, I would impose a waiting period long enough that the people who did the invasion (etc.) are mostly dead, so that nobody would be encouraged to invade or commit genocide by the prospect of getting land.

Also, self-determination doesn't mean that other countries aren't allowed to go to war with you if you attack them.


melian 2 July 2015 07:08 AM

The devil is in the details. What size is a “reasonable" size? What is the definition of “reasonably contiguous”? How do you set minimal standards for a good government before the territory even has an official government?


Jiro 3 July 2015 09:58 PM

I don't think reasonable size and reasonably contiguous actually are problems in the real world. I can't think of any case where an attempted or successful secession got into the history books as other than a curiosity, where the area that tried to secede wasn't reasonable size and reasonably contiguous (other than South African bantusans, which were a sham secession anyway). I mentioned those to rule out cases that are not normally considered secession today, but which overly literal Internet people (or just parties who want to take advantage of secession rules) might try to call secession if I don't exclude them.

As for how you set standards for a good government before they have a government, you can solve that by creating a presumption that the government will be good unless they say or do something otherwise. A surprising number of them do. Furthermore, even when ... read more

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Alice 22 June 2015 06:46 AM

Now, as always, there is only one rule for resolving territorial disputes: the party who is stronger dictates the solution. Sometimes this party is a party of the dispute, sometimes it's the international community or its part, whenever it decides to get involved for whatever reasons. One can say that the ability to involve the international community on its sides is one of the strengths of the parties participating in the dispute.

Whatever principle is invoked to justify the decision is immaterial, and only serves to rationalize one's position. That there are 2 opposing principles that are routinely used, depending on convenience, only proves this point.

Probably this situation will also continue in the future, since there is no such thing as universal justice.


DanielLC 22 June 2015 12:28 PM

Being stronger does increase your bargaining power, but there's more to it than that. War always hurts both sides. It just hurts the more powerful side less. This means that the more powerful side will tend to be quicker to threaten war, but the whole thing about not responding to blackmail applies.

Imagine there were two countries that were equally powerful. One of them could demand 10% of the land from the other, saying that if they refuse they'll start a war which will be several times more costly to both sides. It seems like the rational thing would be to give in to the demands, but if you consistently use that strategy everyone will demand territory from you and you'll do poorly. If you use the strategy of defending your territory regardless of cost, then people will quickly stop demanding territory from you, and you'll do better.

This isn't just some game theory thing. People are built for things like this. This is why you get angry when people take stuff from you, and act "irrational" when angry. Countries will act the same way. People will fight illegitimate stuff more, so if you want to actually benefit from making demands to a country, you have to convince them it's somehow legitimate.


melian 22 June 2015 12:57 PM

if you want to actually benefit from making demands to a country, you have to convince them it's somehow legitimate.

Can you give an example when this was successfully accomplished? I cannot recall any cases where a country voluntary gave up a part of its territory because it was convinced of legitimacy of another country’s demands. At least not in the European history.

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Alice 22 June 2015 01:49 PM

By strength I don't mean just military strength. Strength has many components to it. Being willing to sacrifice many people for the cause, is unfortunately one of them. Having the international community on your side, being able to generate positive media coverage etc are also parts of it.

I believe these so called "rules" are mostly used internally, to justify your own policy to your people - to whip them into rage, or reassure them. This is why we have several contradictory rules, whose use is dictated by convenience. An elementary example: Russia has been using the "territorial integrity" clause for Chechnya, and is now using "national determination" clause for East Ukraine. The vast majority of Russia's population buy both and don't see a contradiction. Needless to say this is not working at all on Ukrainians - they are of course applying the rules they see fit to both ... read more

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Fwiffo 22 June 2015 01:09 PM

Using might and argument to the stick might render the dispute moot but it doesn't actually solve it, the answer just becomes irrelevant. Taiwan still claims the area that China holds. Even if somebody would declare that Taiwan is ethically right in being entitled to the area China isn't going to give it the area.

Off course one might argue that the original question missed the point entirely and the real question should be "what is a good way of handling land holdership?"


Fwiffo 22 June 2015 01:36 PM

Sweden and Finland had a dispute over the Åland islands. It resulted in a kind of pseudo-independence of the area. Åland belongs to Finland but has a right in Finnish contitution to have it's afairs selfgoverned. They are also guaranteed 1 seat in the 200 seat finnish parlament. It is also demilitarised meaning things like it's populace can't be conscripted from and it can't have any military bases in it. It's population is culturally very close to sweden and is kind of part of that area economically. While a official state language in Finland primary Swedish speakers are a minority while they compromise a strong majority in Åland.

I guess this is possible because there is no strong enemities between swedes and the finnish. The division was formed before Finland had come to exist. Sweden lost the Åland islands as part of losing Finland to Russia where it was under the jurisdiction of the grand dutchy establihshed to control the area. Because of the placement of effectively being able to control sea traffic in the baltic sea it was also of special interest to other foreign powers.

So in a way of one of the countries getting it Finland like only half got it, but in a way that pretty satisfactorily met the needs with the people interested.


Fwiffo 22 June 2015 02:24 PM

I would also like to point out that landownership isn't total and exclusive. If you a private person owns a bit of land within a country usually that countrys laws apply there still. There are a lot of limitations that apply on how it can be used. In a way there is the private individual owner and the nation that owns it. This can become significant when the owner is not a citizen of the country the estate is located in.

For example in finland there has been some attention focusing on russian business persons buying finnish land usually in groups. While it can be part of tourism activity of importing tourists from russia which can generally be perceived as a positive thing some biggish areas are just bought off with little to no construction on them. For example with Georgia Russia used as protecting the russian populace in georgia as one excuse of intervention it's not that good a thing if russians come here to be protected. There has also been asymmetry on legistation who can buy land. Russia banned finnish people from buying land near the border in the Russian side (not sure whtether it is still so) while Finland still allowed russians to own finnish land. There were talks on whether finland should become symmetric and ban land buying or whether we should be saying that it is not the style of a first world country to have national divisions on who can control private property (and get them to lift that policy to buy "developed serious country" points with us and the west at large).

We are a non-superpower that has been in direct war with a super power that had intentions to grab our land. Althought it was almost as glorious a loss as is possible that kind of thing sucks hard and requires kills to deaths ratios of like 10 to 1. We would not like to develop any territorial disputes in there. Russian press writing in the style that Finland would be preparing for war makes me wish hard they don't have any warmongering motive either. But then there is the issue of NATO soon almost bordering Russia. I can understand Russia not being super confortable to that. I read that Russia would have given its share of divided Berlin if US promised to not creep NATO inch one bit east. Since then the ideological polarization has lessened and US has tried to withdraw a little from NATO and make it more of a european if not lead then involved thing. Estonia did get totally conquered where we didn't and loners have a high chance of doing that. However megamassive alliances mean megamassive wars. It's not fun when US can be ideological and play against russia in the abstract from almost other side of the globe when we share almost half of our border and like our imports and exports to the east very much. Yet their pushing means pressure in our border where we must handle the practical impact and have little chance to give feedback on what effect their decisions are having. That is why Sweden doesn't need conscription, it's got us as a nice buffer zone to shadow major military disaster scenarios and can focus on being all hippy and focus on peacekeeping.

There has also been a decision that other planetary bodies are not subject to national borders being drawn on them. When mass space transit becomes feasible this might be tested in practise if somebody tries to claim a colony as a legimate new country or part of an old one. In that way there is also the ownership of species. I think we are claiming that humans have power on what Earth is used for and are struggling forexample with how we are maintaining our athmosphere. If we need to clean it up how are we going to break that athmosphere responcibility into conrete actions. Do we at some point need to define driving a gas car as opposed to a hydrogen car as a crime against humanity? Can a country say it doesn't want anything to do with athmosphere cleanup? If the coal based industry of a large country is ruining the air we are breathing in this country does it really have the right to do that?


melian 30 June 2015 01:13 PM

with Georgia Russia used as protecting the russian populace in georgia as one excuse of intervention

Just a small clarification. Based on my knowledge, Russia was actually giving its citizenship to Ossetians in Georgia. They were not protecting ethnic Russians there.
Estonia did get totally conquered where we didn't and loners have a high chance of doing that.

It is impossible to win the fight if you don’t even try. Why do you think loners get a better chance? The way I see it, the only way the Baltic republics might have had a chance is by forming a defensive alliance between themselves and Finland.
It's not fun when US can be ideological and play against russia

The aggressive stance towards the West is vital for the Russian government (for the internal politics reasons). Attempts to appease the Russian government are bound to fail.
That is why Sweden doesn't need conscription, it's got us as a nice buffer zone to shadow major military disaster scenarios and can focus on being all hippy and focus on peacekeeping.

As Galsworthy said, "Idealism increases in direct proportion to ones distance from the problem." That is true pretty much for all countries. I suspect that the Finns attitude to, say, Arab-Israeli conflict is also affected by their distance from the Middle East.