History and Government Faculty Publications

Territorial Integrity

Document Type

Encyclopedia Entry

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Journal Title

The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Global Security Studies



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One of the most significant challenges and debates in contemporary international relations is state sovereignty: who has the right to govern, and who does not, all within a given, usually contiguous, territory. For some people throughout the world, they have a maximalist goal of gaining an independent state (see Griffiths 2016 for the number of movements in the world). For other people in the world, their goal is to make sure that another group does not gain sovereignty; there are differing patterns of nationalism (see Hechter 2000). These conflicting points raise the question of who gets to call themselves sovereign and what constitutes legitimacy (Buchanan 1993; Moore 1998). Thus, a useful definition of territorial integrity is “the principle under international law that nation-states should not promote secessionist movements or to promote border changes in other nation-states, not impose a border change through the use of force” (Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe). Relatedly, the old adage tends to impact this quandary: one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. Global security is impacted by this dilemma that can create a cycle of violence. Therefore, especially in the modern era, some groups and countries have attempted to resolve their constitutional issues through the ballot box in the form of an independence referendum or plebiscite. In other circumstances, violence solves the constitutional or societal issues that bifurcate opposing parties or groups.


Territorial integrity, definition