A State as a Subject of International Law: Definition, Requirements, and Responsibilities

A State as a Subject of International Law: Definition, Requirements, and Responsibilities

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International Law is a complex system that governs the relationships between entities on the global stage. At its core, a subject of law is an entity to which rights and obligations are assigned. In the realm of International Law, states emerge as primary legal subjects, possessing unique legal and corporate personalities. To be recognized as a subject of International Law, an entity must exhibit the capacity to hold rights, engage in relations with other subjects, and stand before international courts. This article explores the definition of a state, the criteria for statehood, and the extensive rights and duties associated with being a state.

Section 1: Definition and Requirements of Statehood

While there is no precise definition of the term "State" in International Law, the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (1933) provides a foundational framework for statehood. According to Article 1 of the Convention, a state should possess the following qualifications:

a. A permanent population b. A defined territory c. Government d. Capacity to enter into relations with other States

(a) A Permanent Population:

The existence of a permanent population is a fundamental requirement for the establishment of a state. This criterion serves as initial evidence of a stable community. Though International Law does not stipulate a minimum population requirement, the presence of a stable community is indispensable for recognizing the existence of a state. Notably, the size of the population becomes relevant in the context of the self-determination criterion.

(b) A Defined Territory:

The requirement of a defined territory is intricately linked with that of a permanent population. It necessitates a portion of land inhabited by a stable community. Unlike fully defined boundaries, which are not mandatory, the key is the existence of an effective political authority with control over a specific land area. Historical instances, such as the recognition of Albania in 1913 and Israel's admission to the United Nations despite territorial disputes, demonstrate the flexibility in this requirement.

(c) A Government:

For a stable community to function effectively, the presence of some form of political organization is necessary. An effective government, with centralized administrative and legislative organs, ensures internal stability and the ability to fulfill international obligations. While the requirement for an effective government has undergone modification in modern practice, it remains crucial for internal stability and international engagement.

In certain cases, entities have been recognized as independent states without a fully organized government. Notable examples include the recognition of the State of Croatia and the State of Bosnia and Herzegovina during civil war situations. Importantly, a state does not cease to exist temporarily if deprived of an effective government due to civil war or similar upheavals. However, the strict application of the requirement for an effective government is evident when part of a population seeks to break away to form a new state.

States are central subjects in the landscape of International Law, and their recognition hinges on meeting specific criteria outlined in international conventions. A state's permanent population, defined territory, effective government, and capacity to engage in relations with other states form the foundational components of statehood. Understanding these criteria is essential for comprehending the extensive rights and duties associated with being a state in the international community.

Section 2: Additional Requirements for Statehood

While the Montevideo Convention provides essential criteria for statehood, additional requirements such as sovereignty, independence, self-determination, and recognition play significant roles in the international recognition of a state.

(a) Sovereignty:

Sovereignty is a key attribute of statehood. It signifies the supreme authority of a state to govern its territory and make decisions without external interference. Sovereignty is closely tied to the concept of independence, emphasizing a state's autonomy in its internal and external affairs.

(b) Independence:

Independence, in the context of statehood, refers to a state's freedom from political control by another state. A truly independent state is not subject to external domination or subjugation. This criterion is essential for a state to assert its identity and participate as a subject in the international community.

(c) Self-Determination:

The principle of self-determination is pivotal in the context of statehood. It asserts the right of a people to determine their political status, pursue economic, social, and cultural development, and freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources. Self-determination often plays a crucial role in the emergence of new states through processes such as decolonization or secession.

(d) Recognition:

While recognition is not a strict requirement for statehood, it holds immense practical significance in the international arena. Recognition by other states is a political act that signifies acceptance of a particular entity as a sovereign state. The recognition of statehood can facilitate diplomatic relations, trade agreements, and participation in international organizations.

Section 3: Rights and Duties of a State

As primary subjects of International Law, states enjoy a range of rights and bear corresponding duties. These rights and duties are essential for maintaining order and promoting cooperation in the international community.

(a) Rights of a State:

  1. Sovereignty: A state's supreme authority over its territory and affairs.
  2. Territorial Integrity: The right to safeguard its borders and protect against external aggression.
  3. Diplomatic Recognition: The right to be recognized as a sovereign state by other members of the international community.
  4. Jurisdiction: The right to exercise legal authority within its territory.

(b) Duties of a State:

  1. Compliance with International Law: States are obligated to abide by international treaties and customary law.
  2. Non-Intervention: The duty to refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of other states.
  3. Peaceful Settlement of Disputes: States are encouraged to resolve disputes through peaceful means, such as negotiation or arbitration.
  4. Human Rights: The responsibility to protect and promote human rights within their territories.


Understanding the nuanced criteria for statehood and the associated rights and duties is crucial for navigating the intricate landscape of International Law. States, as primary subjects, play a pivotal role in shaping the global order. As the international community continues to evolve, the principles and criteria discussed in this article serve as a foundation for the recognition and participation of states in the complex web of international relations.


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