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Sovereign state

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A sovereign state is a place with borders where people live, and where a government makes laws and talks to other sovereign states. The people have to follow the laws that the government makes and only the government is allowed to hurt people or put them in jail. The government can do whatever it wants and doesn't have to do what other governments tell it to do.[1] Most sovereign states are recognized which means other sovereign states agree that it's really a sovereign state. Being recognized makes it easier for a sovereign state to talk to and make agreements (treaties) with other sovereign states. There are hundreds of recognized sovereign states today - see List of sovereign states.

What a sovereign state is

There is no rule to say what exactly makes a state. Usually, the things a state must have are mainly political, not legal.[2] The Czechs and the Poles were seen as separate states during World War I, even though they did not exist as states yet. L.C. Green explained this by saying that "recognition of statehood is a matter of discretion, it is open to any existing state to accept as a state any entity it wishes, regardless of the existence of territory or an established government."[3]

This means that it is up to any state that already exists to treat any other group as a state. This recognition can be direct or implied. When a state does this, it usually means that the group will also be treated as a state for things that happened in the past. It does not need to mean that the state wants to have a relationship with the other group.

Sovereignty is a word that is often used wrongly.[4] Lassa Oppenheim said that there is no idea whose meaning is more than sovereignty. No one argues the fact that from the time the idea of sovereignty was first used in political science until now, there has never been one meaning that everyone agreed on.[5] Justice Evatt of the High Court of Australia says that "sovereignty is neither a question of fact, nor a question of law, but a question that does not arise at all." [6]

Although the word sovereignty often includes all types of government, ancient and modern, the modern state has some links to the type of government first seen in the 15th century, when the term "state" also first meant what it does today. Because of this, the word is often used to refer only to modern political systems.

We often use the words "country", "nation", and "state" as if they mean the same thing; but there is actually a difference:

  • A nation is a group of people who are believed to share common customs, origins, and history. However, the adjectives national and international are used about what is strictly a sovereign state, as in national capital, international law.
  • A state is the government and other supporting groups of people that have sovereignty over an area of land and population.

Because the meaning of the words has changed over time and past writers often used the word "state" in a different ways it is difficult to say exactly what a state is. Mikhail Bakunin used the word simply to mean a governing organization. Other writers used the word "state" to mean any law-making or law enforcement agency. Karl Marx said that the state was what was used by the ruling class of a country to control the rule. According to Max Weber, the state is an organization who are the only people allowed to use violence in a particular area.

Constitutive theory of statehood

In 1815 at the Congress of Vienna the Final Act only recognized 39 sovereign states in Europe. Because of this, they said that in future new states would have to be recognized by other states. In practice, this meant recognition by one or more of the most powerful countries.[7]

This constitutive theory was developed in the 19th century to describe what is and is not a state. With this theory, the need to follow international law depends on whether other sovereign governments recognize the group. Because of this, new states could not become part of the international community or be bound by international law immediately, so recognized nations did not have to respect international law in their dealings with them.[8]

One of the major criticisms of this law is the confusion that happens when some states recognize a new group, but other states do not. Hersch Lauterpacht, one of the main people who supported the theory, suggested that it is a state's job to grant recognition as a possible solution. However, a state may use any set of rules when judging if they should give recognition. Many states may only recognize another state if it will help them.[8]

Declarative theory of statehood

One of the criteria most commonly used by micronations is the Montevideo Convention. The Montevideo Convention was signed on December 26 1933 by the United States, Honduras, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay, Paraguay, Mexico, Panama, Bolivia, Guatemala, Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Colombia, Chile, Peru and Cuba but it never received international consensus.[9] The Montevideo Convention has four conditions that a group "should" meet to become a state:

  • a population that lives there
  • a set piece of land
  • a government
  • the ability to enter into relations with other states

According to this, the existence of a state does not depend upon recognition by other states. Whether or not an group meets the conditions is decided by other states when they decide if they are going to treat that group as a state. Usually, new states are formally recognized by at least a few other states.[10]

De facto and de jure states

Most sovereign states are states de jure and de facto. This means they exist both in law and in real life. However, sometimes states are only de jure states. This means that other states see a group as the true government of a place where they have no actual control. Many European states had governments-in-exile during the Second World War which still had relations with the Allies, even though their countries were under Nazi occupation. An example today is the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, which is a United Nations observer, has with 104 states. It has no land of its own, only embassies and consulates.[11] Other states may have sovereignty over a place, but are not recognized by other states, these are de facto states only. Many people agree that Somaliland is such a state.[12][13][14][15]


  1. "sovereign", The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Houghton Mifflin Company), 2004,, retrieved 21 February 2010, "adj. 1. Self-governing; independent: a sovereign state."
    "sovereign", The New Oxford American Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press), ISBN 0-19-517077-6 , "adjective ... [ attrib. ] (of a nation or state) fully independent and determining its own affairs: a sovereign, democratic republic."
    Central Intelligence Agency, "Entities", The CIA World Factbook,, retrieved 23 February 2010, "'Independent state' refers to a people politically organized into a sovereign state with a definite territory."
    See also, the decision of the British House of Lords in Duff Development Co. v. Kelantan Government [1924] 1 AC 797.
  2. See B. Broms, "IV Recognition of States", pp 47-48 in International law: achievements and prospects, UNESCO Series, Mohammed Bedjaoui(ed), Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1991, ISBN 9231027166 [1]
  3. See Israel Yearbook on Human Rights, 1989, Yoram Dinstein, Mala Tabory eds., Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1990, ISBN 0-7923-0450-0, page 135-136 [2]
  4. See "Sovereignty: organized hypocrisy, Stephen D. Krasner, Princeton University Press, 1999, ISBN 069100711X
  5. 1 Lassa Oppenheim, International Law 66 (Sir Arnold D. McNair ed., 4th ed. 1928)
  6. See Sovereignty in cases of Mandated Territories, in "International law and the protection of Namibia's territorial integrity", By S. Akweenda, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1997, ISBN 9041104127, page 40
  7. Kalevi Jaakko Holsti Taming the Sovereigns p. 128
  8. 8.0 8.1 Hillier, Tim (1998). Sourcebook on Public International Law. Routledge. pp. 201–2. ISBN 1859410502 .
  9. "Convention on Rights and Duties of States (inter-American); December 26, 1933". The Avalon Project. Yale University. 2008-11-17. Archived from the original on 2008-02-15. Retrieved 2008-11-20.
  10. See for example "The Restatement (Third) of The Foreign Relations Law of the United States", American Law Institute, (1987), §201.(h)
  11. Bilateral relations with countries, Retrieved 2009-12-22
  12. Arieff, Alexis (November 2008). "De facto Statehood? The Strange Case of Somaliland". Yale Journal of International Affairs. Retrieved 2010-01-04.
  13. "The List: Six Reasons You May Need A New Atlas Soon". Foreign Policy Magazine. July 2007. Retrieved 2010-01-04.
  14. "Overview of De-facto States". Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. July 2008. Retrieved 2010-01-04.
  15. Wiren, Robert (April 2008). "France recognizes de facto Somaliland". Les Nouvelles d'Addis Magazine. Retrieved 2010-01-04.

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