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This article is about sovereign independent states. For subnational entities called states, see State . For other uses, see State.

A sovereign state, commonly simply referred to as a state, is a political association with effective internal and external sovereignty over a geographic area and population which is not dependent on, or subject to any other power or state. While in abstract terms a sovereign state can exist without being recognised by other sovereign states, unrecognised states will often find it hard to exercise full treaty-making powers and engage in diplomatic relations with other sovereign states.


Although the term often includes broadly all institutions of government or rule—ancient and modern—the modern state system bears a number of characteristics that were first consolidated beginning in earnest in the 15th century, when the term "state" also acquired its current meaning. Thus the word is often used in a strict sense to refer only to modern political systems.

In casual usage, the terms "country", "nation", and "state" are often used as if they were synonymous; but in a more strict usage they can be distinguished:

  • Nation denotes a people who are believed to or deemed to share common customs, origins, and history. However, the adjectives national and international also refer to matters pertaining to what are strictly sovereign states, as in national capital, international law.

  • State refers to the set of governing and supportive institutions that have sovereignty over a definite territory and population.

Constitutive theory of statehood

In 1815 at the Congress of Vienna the Final Act only recognised 39 sovereign states in the European diplomatic system, and as a result it was firmly established that in future new states would have to be recognised by other states, and that meant in practice recognition by one or more of the great powers.

The constitutive theory was developed in the 19th century to define what is and is not a state. With this theory, the obligation to obey international law depends on a entity's recognition by other countries. Because of this, new states could not immediately become part of the international community or be bound by international law, and recognized nations did not have to respect international law in their dealings with them.

One of the major criticisms of this law is the confusion caused when some states recognize a new entity, but other states do not, a situation the theory does not deal with. Hersch Lauterpacht, one of the theory's main proponents, suggested that it is a state's duty to grant recognition as a possible solution. However, a state may use any criteria when judging if they should give recognition and they have no obligation to use such criteria. Many countries may only recognize a state if it is to their advantage.

Declarative theory of statehood

One of the criteria most commonly cited by micronations with regard to difficulty getting international recognition is the Montevideo Convention. The Montevideo Convention was signed on December 26 1933 by the United Statesmarker, Hondurasmarker, El Salvadormarker, Dominican Republicmarker, Haitimarker, Argentinamarker, Venezuelamarker, Uruguaymarker, Paraguaymarker, Mexicomarker, Panamamarker, Boliviamarker, Guatemalamarker, Brazilmarker, Ecuadormarker, Nicaraguamarker, Colombiamarker, Chilemarker, Perumarker and Cubamarker but it never received international consensus. The Montevideo Convention has four conditions that an entity must meet to become a country:

  • a permanent population
  • defined territory
  • Government
  • capacity to enter into relations with other states

De facto and de jure states

Most sovereign states are states de jure and de facto (ie they exist both in law and in reality). However sometimes states exist only as de jure states in that an organisation is recognised as having sovereignty over and being the legitimate government of a territory over which they have no actual control. Many continental European countries maintained governments-in-exile during the Second World War which continued to enjoy diplomatic relations with the Allies, notwithstanding that their countries were under Nazi occupation.

Other states may have sovereignty over a territory but as they lack international recognition, are de facto states only. Somalilandmarker is commonly considered to be such a state, as well as Taiwanmarker.

See also


  1. Kalevi Jaakko Holsti Taming the Sovereigns p. 128

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