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Why do states have territorial rights?

  • Anna Stilz (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 July 2009

What gives a particular state the right to exercise jurisdiction and enforcement power over a particular territory? Why does the state of Denmark have rights over the territory of Denmark, and not over the territory of Sweden, and vice versa? This paper first considers a popular argument that purports to ground state territorial rights in citizens’ rights of land ownership. On this view, the state has jurisdiction over territory insofar as its people owns the territory, and delegates jurisdictional powers over their land to the state. It is argued that we should reject this approach, because it is unable to explain: (a) how the state can establish a continuous territory; (b) why later generations consent to the state’s jurisdiction; and (c) why non-consenting property owners cannot secede.

Rather than considering state jurisdiction to be derived from the people’s prior property rights, this paper claims that we should consider state jurisdictional rights over territory to be primitive. It defends an alternative Kantian account of territorial rights. On this view, a state’s claim to jurisdiction over territory is justified if that state imposes a system of property law that meets certain basic conditions of legitimacy. This Kantian approach, it is argued, allows us to make better sense of state territorial rights.

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International Theory
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