Speaking Volumes: The Acquisition of Territory in International Law

November 17, 1995

Malcolm Shaw on Robert Jennings's The Acquisition of Territory in International Law .

I have an interest to declare here. The author of the book that I wish to write about bears the same name as the chair of international law that I hold. This is not mere coincidence. The chair was so named in his honour by my university in recognition of his prestige and pre-eminence in the subject. But should this be a reason for me not to regard his work as within the remit of this column? After consideration and consultation, I decided in the negative.

I first really came across Jennings's The Acquisition of Territory in International Law while studying for an LLM in international law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. It was the period just before the Yom Kippur War erupted and the atmosphere in those days in that place was optimistic, frenetic and vigorous. Heady discussions in our postgraduate class of international legal issues were much stimulated by seminars with, for example, Julius Stone then on leave from Sydney.

Of the many international legal issues thrashed over at that time (and indeed subsequently), was that of title to territory, that is the question of sovereignty over land in international law. Yehuda Blum (one of my teachers in Jerusalem) had a few years earlier published a controversial article on sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, enunciating a view that the Likud government was to adopt when it came to power in Israel at the end of the 1970s. It precipitated a vigorous debate and recourse to many learned tomes.

These tomes consulted were learned, dry and exhaustive. They were instructive and heavily informative, hard work indeed to absorb. And then I came across Jennings's book. A slim volume, published in 1963 by Manchester University Press in the Melland Schill Lectures Series. With fewer than 90 pages, it was unbelievably easy to read. Elegant and perceptive, it examined the major issues relating to the acquisition of territory in international law in a stimulating, easily digestible yet enormously profound way.

I learned several important things. First, that to be influential and original one did not need to spawn a long, turgid and grandiloquent tome. Readability and elegance of style were not antipathetic to the production of a seminal work, which Jennings's book is still acknowledged to be. Thirty years after its first appearance, the book continues to be the indispensable starting point for any serious consideration of territory in international law.

Second, I began to appreciate that the law relating to territory was an important, fascinating and stimulating subject worthy of further study. In many ways it encapsulated the essence of international law itself. Jennings concluded his work, as he had commenced it, by noting that the problem of the legal ordering of territorial stability and territorial change lay at the heart of the whole problem of the legal ordering of international society and in this comment, he vividly focused attention upon the fundamental importance of the management of stability and change in a state-based international relations system, one which by its very nature was territorially constituted. I later studied for a PhD in this area and have continued to publish and practise in it ever since.

The third lesson learnt from the work was that one needed to have a sense of the critical relationship between law and politics on the international scene. Law is an important part of relations between states and as such forms one element within the larger whole of international politics. A true appreciation of international law is not possible without an understanding of international politics. But it is an element which is in many ways distinctive and self-contained. The differences between legal and political principles are crucial and critical. One cannot ignore or neglect them. And in the process of managing or coming to terms with change within the international system, law plays a vital and sustaining role. It is indeed truly amazing how much can be said in an uncomplicated yet sophisticated way in a modest book.

Malcolm N. Shaw is the Sir Robert Jennings professor of international law, University of Leicester.

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