13 November 2018

“Research Handbook on Territorial Disputes” by Marcelo Kohen


Despite globalisation and the increasingly transnational character of human activities, territorial disputes remain a significant source of tensions in international relations and constitute a large share of inter-state cases brought before international tribunals and courts. Professor Marcelo Kohen and Mamadou Hébié, Graduate Institute alumnus and now Assistant Professor at the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies of Leiden Law School, have coedited the Research Handbook on Territorial Disputes in International Law, which analyses the concepts, technical rules, and norms applicable to territorial disputes. Interview with Professor Kohen.

Why this handbook? Is it to help the states defend themselves, to support student research, or to gather an impressive amount of knowledge?

I was asked by Edward Elgar, the publisher, to prepare a volume for its collection of Research Handbooks. Indeed, territorial disputes are a subject of permanent interest both from a theoretical and a practical perspective. This volume complements a previous book in the same area, Territoriality and International Law, that Edward Elgar had also asked me to prepare. This first volume is a collection of 24 major pieces written in English dealing with the different legal aspects of territory as a key factor in international relations, preceded by my analysis of them. The Research Handbook focuses on the different aspects of territorial disputes from a legal perspective. It provides in-depth research on state and international practice, case law and doctrine in the field. As such, it is useful to both practitioners and scholars.

What are its main academic interest and originality in terms of research?

The non-codified character of rules applicable to territorial disputes in international law makes them prone to confusions, incoherent statements, if not outright myths. The object of this Research Handbook is to map the field of territorial disputes around the key elements that structure it. It focuses on the fundamental rules, principles and techniques applicable in this domain in the light of the evolution of international law, and follows the logical steps that come into play in territorial disputes. We prefer to give readers the fundamental tools of analysis, and to leave it to them to apply those tools to concrete disputes in which they have a particular interest.

Is there an increase in territorial disputes in the world?

Today’s world is witnessing two apparently contradictory trends: the loss of importance of the sovereign state as the principal actor in international relations, and the rising number of sovereign states and attempts at creating new ones in different parts of the globe. This paradox reveals that the state and its material substrate, the territory, still play a predominant role in the contemporary world. As a result, while many territorial disputes remain unsettled, new ones have appeared, increasing their number. It is interesting to notice a growth in the use of adjudicative means of dispute settlement in this field.

Does this mean that the field is changing?

Many territorial disputes have their origin in situations or facts that occurred many decades, if not centuries, ago. The challenge for the scholar and the practitioner is to take account of the law that existed at the relevant times, as well as identifying the manner in which international law must take account of what happened afterwards, up to the factual situation prevailing today. Territorial disputes essentially involve deciding who holds sovereignty, but there are also other important considerations deserving treatment, such as human rights and natural resources. International law has evolved so that the rule of law prevails over force, and this evolution applies likewise to territorial disputes.

Can you tell us about your next publication?

My next book will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2019. It is an article-by-article commentary of the Institute of International Law’s resolution on state succession and state responsibility. I was the rapporteur of the Institute regarding this matter and as such I had a leading part in elaborating the resolution. It relates to a topic that has scarcely been studied before and that raises practical issues, in particular as a result of the emergence of new states over the last years. The UN International Law Commission has recently included it in the areas that it will work on. I prepared this book together with one of my former PhD students, Patrick Dumberry, who is now professor of international law – just as I did for the Research Handbook.



Full citation of Professor Kohen’s new book:
Kohen, Marcelo, and Mamadou Hébié, eds. Research Handbook on Territorial Disputes in International Law. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2018.

Interview by Marc Galvin, Research Office.
Front picture: Henri Meyer [Public domain].