This chapter appraises the concepts of sovereignty and self-determination. Although both concepts are widely used in legal and political sciences, sovereignty gives priority to the state as a whole while self-determination centers on one of its elements: population. What is of interest to territorial disputes is that these concepts are not exclusive but inclusive. That is to say, sovereignty is assumed by many to be absolute, and self-determination seems to lead to independence. Consequently, territorial disputes are in a legal and political limbo because “territorial sovereignty” can be granted to only one of the claiming parties. Indeed, for this way of understanding sovereignty and self-determination the claims of various international agents to the same territory are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.
This chapter demonstrates that there is no such a thing as absolute sovereignty: in all cases sovereignty is limited and, therefore, shareable. Furthermore, self-determination may lead to solutions other than independence. By demonstrating these two points there can be a shift from preconceived, narrow views to assessing territorial disputes in a different way and move toward resolving them.
Sovereignty is a complex concept. It assumes supreme authority and, for some, that means single non-shareable authority. The first part of this chapter demonstrates that sovereign states have factual and normative limitations and that, therefore, states may be at odds with each other or cooperate. This is an axiological choice and has nothing to do with sovereignty itself. Indeed, states accept limitations and may operate together, limit their sovereignty and still be considered fully sovereign. Whatever the extent of the limitations, dependence on the good will of the participants in any agreement, and any other elements that may jeopardize the strength of a joint international enterprise, these restrictions in theory and practice may either limit the state’s choices or enhance them.
Because it is possible to assess territorial disputes by reference to population as well as territory, the will of the people who live in the space under dispute begs further exploration. It is at this point that self-determination—the prerogative of a population with certain characteristics to choose their political status—becomes relevant to territorial disputes. Despite from what common knowledge assumes, self-determination may result in situations other than independence such as integration, free association, and shared sovereignty. If states can share sovereignty, territorial disputes can center on elements other than territory, and self-determination may lead to solutions other than independence, then there is room to resolve territorial disputes by cooperative approaches.