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Is it possible under international law for a country to legally acquire territory belonging to another sovereign country by force? What are the preconditions for this action to be legal? Is it just a case of whether the annexation has enough international recognization?

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I guess you are not talking in hypotheticals here, right? Is this about Israel?


All international law is either customary or being agreed by the nations, and nations get to agree what counts as customary international law. So a sufficient number of sufficiently significant nations agreeing to the annexation would do it.

There used to be the concept in international law that annexation after conquest was legitimate, especially if the conquest resulted from a war deemed legitimate. The idea was roughly that kings owned their territory (including the allegiance of the population) and could leave it to their heirs, or trade it away, or fight for it.

This has been replaced by the self-determination of nations, which implies that occupation can be a wartime expedient but not permanent. But this was not completely retroactive. The conquest of Gibraltar in 1704 is still considered valid today. Of course there is the question what a nation is. Many Catalans think they are a nation deserving self-determination, while much of the world considers them part of Spain.

  • Speaking totally in general; whether that be Turkey in Cyprus or Russia in Ukraine. I’m not clear on how this would apply to Israel actually - international law seems to get complex very quickly in that situation! – CDJB Nov 20 at 18:29
  • For Crimea, the occupying power went through the motions of asking the will of the population. An election or referendum under such conditions may be considered invalid, but Gibraltar freely expressed a wish to stay British under the guns of the Brits ... – o.m. Nov 20 at 19:15
  • Your final paragraph suggests that self-determination in practice is at best unclear and at worst unworkable. But that doesn't seem to be your point. To me, it's unclear what the point of that final paragraph is. (but I totally agree with the "a sufficient number of sufficiently significant nations agreeing to the annexation would do it.") – Sjoerd Nov 20 at 19:42
  • May be worth noting that this is even more complicated in that the land was part of Jordan at the time? – user19831 Nov 20 at 21:22
  • @Sjoerd, self-determination matters when it is sufficiently clear that the nation is a nation and the people have an opinion. On the national level, you have laws and a court system to enforce a uniform interpretation of the laws, at least if the nation has the rule of law. On the international level, you have principles which sometimes sway the actions of a sufficiently large number of nations. – o.m. Nov 21 at 5:40

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