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Succession of states is a theory in international relations regarding the recognition and acceptance of a newly created state by other states, based on a perceived historical relationship the new state has with a prior state. The theory has its root in 19th century diplomacy.


Succession may refer to the transfer of rights, obligations, and/or property from a previously well-established prior state (the predecessor state) to the new one (the successor state). Transfer of rights, obligations, and property can include overseas assets (embassies, monetary reserves, museum artifacts), participation in treaties, membership in international organizations, and debts. Often a state chooses piecemeal whether or not it wants to be considered the successor state. A special case arises, however, when the predecessor state was signatory to a human rights treaty, since it would be desirable to hold the successor state accountable to the terms of that treaty, regardless of the successor state's desires.

In an attempt to codify the rules of succession of states the Vienna Convention on Succession of States in respect of Treaties was drafted in 1978. It entered into force on November 6, 1996.

In general, the theory is followed in the world community: a new government might be distasteful to others, but pragmatically it must be recognized if it exercises de facto control over all of the predecessor state's territory.

A difficulty arises at the dissolution of a larger territory into a number of independent states. Of course, each of those states will be subject to the international obligations that bound their predecessor . What may become a matter of contention, however, is a situation where one successor state seeks either to continue to be recognised under the same federal name of that of its predecessor or to assume the privileged position in international organisations held by the preceding federation.

International convention since the end of the Cold War has come to distinguish two distinct circumstances where such privileges are sought by such a successor state, in only the first of which may such successor states assume the name or privileged international position of their predecessor. The first set of circumstances arose at the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republicsmarker (USSR) in 1991. One of this federation's constituent republics, the Russian Federationmarker was declared the USSR's successor state on the grounds that it contained just under 60 % of the population of the USSR and a larger majority of its territory. In consequence, it acquired the USSR's seat as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. (See Russia and the United Nations.)

This resolution was in sharp contrast to the manner in which the United Nations dealt with the claim of the federation of Serbiamarker and Montenegromarker to be recognised as the continuation of the state of Yugoslavia (albeit as the Federal Republic of Yugoslaviamarker as opposed to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslaviamarker). These two republics shared in common less than half of the population and territory of the former federation and the UN refused to allow the new federation to sit in the General Assembly of the United Nations under the name of 'Yugoslavia'. Thus followed over a decade where the state was referred to uneasily as the Former Federal Republic of Yugoslaviamarker.

In a broader context, successor state is applied where the international law concept would be at best anachronistic; for example in universal history or comparative history.

There are therefore several, quite different possible connotations of successor state, in terms of the continuity implied.

  • The international law term implies legal links, on rights and the recognition of legitimacy of claims, but also on continuing treaty obligations, and the status of citizens who otherwise may become stateless.
  • Cultural continuity.
  • As a loose organisational term for historians, it implies not much more than a plausible link of parentage in a 'family tree' of groups of rulers; there need be no specific legacy going beyond physical possession.

Exceptions to orderly succession

There are several recent examples where succession of states, as described above, has not been entirely adhered to.

See also

Further reading

  • Burgenthal/Doehring/Kokott: Grundzüge des Völkerrechts, 2. Auflage, Heidelberg 2000


  1. "United Nations text"

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