Review: “On Borders; Territories, Legitimacy & the Rights of Place” (2020) by Paulina Ochoa Espejo Assessment 6/7 out of 10

Territorial Rights are divided between rights 1) to jurisdiction, 2) to control natural resources and 3) to control borders. The first relies on sovereignty, the second can & should be shared where rivers form international borders, for instance the Rhine & Rio Grande, the third is founded in international law and isn’t unilateral but should be shared between the bordering jurisdictions.

Dominion, derived from property law, is an aspect of civil law.  Territory was treated as analogous to private property. Locke argued the state emerges from a combination of individual properties, Kant that property rights only exist once provided for by the state & that the sovereign is the supreme proprietor ie feudalism. Kant argued no independently existing territory should be acquired by another by inheritance, exchange or purchase, which, of course, was exactly what happened until at least the 19th century.

Borders are lines delimiting a state’s exclusive jurisdiction, but border institutions, practices & infrastructure extend far beyond that line. At airports way beyond borders, governments exercise powers under border controls. Borders themselves create places, Tijuana was divided from San Diego in 1848, where the border became “etched in culture, institutions, nature & urban space.” Borders do not delimit geographical areas, but structure patterns of interaction amongst those surrounding them.   

It is assumed that a territory is the space occupied by a people. However Ochoa Espejo indicates that the argument that the two are linked is circular.  Plebiscites took place in 1920 in Schleswig, Klagenfurt & Allenstein to define where borders should lie.  However who defines the area in which the people are given choice of adherence by plebiscite? “It seems reasonable to let the people decide. [However] the people cannot decide, until someone decides, who are the people”

The standard assumption is that territories are distinct, independent & with a well-defined people. In reality this may only have been achieved with forced deportations etc

In 1848 after the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidelgo, much of Mexico was ceded to the US. Mexicans could remain & either retain Mexican citizenship or take US citizenship. No such rights were granted to nomadic Indian “savages”, whilst Americans were meant to respect native America dwelling grounds. Even this was revoked in 1854 with the subsequent Gadsden Purchase. In 1919 under the Treaty of Versailles returning Alsace-Lorraine to France, only those who were French citizens in 1870 or their patrilineal descendants had the right to stay. Former French allies considered this violated the right to stay of expelled Alsatians.

All borders are ultimately political decisions. Curzon favoured natural boundaries as they are easier to defend. The idea of natural bounders “smuggles in a normative standard of where borders ought to be”. Watershed/ mountainous borders may be natural boundaries, but left German speakers in South Tyrol and Catalans in Cerdagne on the wrong side of the watershed, with Llivia, a Spanish enclave in France.

The Desert Island model offering distinctiveness is contrasted with the Watershed Model offering connectedness.

The Desert Island model assumes the right of first taker, Sir George Sommers landing on deserted Bermuda, the tale adapted by Shakespeare in “The Tempest”.Thomas Moore’s “Utopia” was set on an island, as have other dreamed up places starting at the latest with Odysseus. Whilst no man is an island, each territory is assumed to be an island with its own land, people and institutions.  Of course this is artificial when territories are part of a continent.

The Desert Island model didn’t support Spanish seizure of the Americas, which was justified in spreading the faith.

The Watershed model advocated instead by Ochoa Espejo “doesn’t suggest all borders should follow watersheds but is a metaphor that aspires to align concerns for sustainability with place specific obligations.”  With climate change, ecological disasters will be more frequent, increasing the argument for territories based on ecology.  Seeing the difficulties in defining jurisdictions as representing national groups doesn’t mean it is practicable for a different model to be adopted.

Whilst interesting, the argument seems unrealistic, given the resilience of established borders. When a polity breaks up, for instance Yugoslavia, the old boundaries are adopted by the replacer states. In Africa the straight borders imposed by European colonial powers suggest they were imposed on the inhabitants. Under uti possidetis nonetheless, the successor independent African states assume the borders of the former colonies and are generally opposed to secession and the redrawing of boundaries. In peacemaking the principle rewarded territory to the last holder.

A state’s concerns are with territorial control and revenue extraction, Ochoa Espejo argues place specific networks emerge from the bottom up, communes setting their own borders. Place is epiphenomenal, a secondary phenomenon accompanying another & created by it ie territory creates place, place doesn’t create territory. She suggests the (natural) Watershed model would create more place based territories rather than territories based on “we the people”. This & objection to people, like the Alsatians, being in place but expelled after a change of borders, doesn’t justify her suggestion that being in place, even as an illegal immigrant, should guarantee participation in a territory.

The more state sovereignty wanes, with globalisation, drones and the world wide web, the more states display symbols of force eg border walls. The US Secure Fence Act 2006 did not achieve what was intended.  It lead to the creation of better and more complex criminal networks to circumvent it. It meant circular migrants stayed as they worried about being able to re-enter and instead brought their families into the US. It did ecological harm with migrants trudging through sensitive conservation areas.

Much of the book I found interesting, but the style and politically correct feminism wearing. The author is an associate professor of political philosophy and I am not encouraged to read more political philosophy on subjects in which I am less interested than in Borders.

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