Acquisition and Loss of State Territory


Modes of Acquisition of state territory.

Acquisition of a territory by a state means the acquisition of sovereignty over such territory. An existing state may acquire the territory which may already be under the sovereignty of another state or which may not belong to any state i.e., res nullius. While the former is called derivate mode of acquisition wherein acquisition enlarges the territory of one state and loss of another. The latter is called original mode of acquisition wherein territory of one state is enlarged without any loss to the other state. “Res communist” is an area which legally cannot be acquired. For example, high seas, outer space and Antarctica. Such areas are unownable.

Following are the different modes by which a state may acquire territory.


In international law, occupation means an act of appropriation by a state over a territory which does not belong to any other state. Such territory may be uninhabited such as an island, or may by inhabited by persons whose community is not considered as a state.

Norway-Denmark Dispute Over Eastern Greenland and Ruling of PCIJ:-

A Dispute arose on the legal status of Eastern Greenland with both Norway and Denmark claiming sovereign rights over the territory. The permanent court of international justice (PCIJ) laid down that occupation to be effective should be accompanied by two elements; animus and corpus.


Animus means intention on the part of the state to appropriate the territory and to establish sovereignty over it. The intention to treat it as a part of its territory permanently to the exclusion of other states is essential.


The state acquiring territory should take the corpus i.e., possession. The occupation of territory requires steps to exercise its authority on the occupied state. Generally, possession of a part of the territory is regarded as the possession of all the territory.

Oppenheim’s View:

Oppenheim has stated that some kind of administration is necessary to show that the territory is governed by the new possessor. The administration should be established in a minimum time and must be effective for socio-economic stability of the territory. Once occupied, no other state can lawfully acquire the occupation unless the occupying state has either withdrawn from it or has lost effective presence and control.


When a state conquers another state the former establishes its sovereignty over the latter. Annexation has two elements; occupation and intention. Intention of annexation should also be declared by the conquered state, followed by notification to annex and subsequent recognition by several other powers. In the absence of indication of intention to annex, the territory acquired is termed as military occupation. It is a method of powerful states to expand their territories by occupying and enslaving weaker states. However, after the establishment of UN, acquisition of territory through conquest has become illegal. Article 2, para 4 of charter of UN. The “member state shall not use the force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state……” Also UN Declaration on the Principles of Friendly Relation 1979 provides that territory of a state shall not be the object of acquisition by another state resulting from the threat or use of force.

The Acquisition of territory resulting from threat or use of force in contravention of international law will not be recognized as legal acquisition.


Accretion is the increase of land through new formations that may or may not increase the state territory. It can be natural in the form of alluvions, deltas, new-born islands and abandoned river beds as well as artificial like claiming land from the sea, forming artificial islands etc.


Prescription is the acquisition of territory by an adverse holding continued for a certain length of time, peacefully. Acquisition by prescription must fulfill three conditions.

  • Possession of territory should be peaceful and without any interruption.
  • Possession should be continuous.
  • Possession should be held for a long time.


Transfer of sovereignty over state territory by the owner state to another state.

The state acquiring the territory is called acquiring state and the state which transfers the territory is called ceding state. However, ceding as well as acquiring states must be states and the transfer must be through a legal agreement between the two parties.

Kinds of Cession:

Peaceful Cession:

Cession which results from peaceful negotiations such as sale, exchange or gift etc for example, Pakistan bought Gawadar from Oman in 1957.

Treaty Cession:

Often after the war, culminating in peace treaty.For example, treaty of Versailles after the WW-I.


Territory may also be acquired by a state through adjudication by a judicial organ such as ICJ, ad hoc arbitral tribunals or conciliation commissions. A territory of one state if passed to another by a recognized judicial or settlement commission, it is regarded as to have passed through award. The transfer of territory in settlement of boundary disputes does not amount to acquisition of territory. For example, the transfer of 350 miles of Rann of Kuch to Pakistan in accordance with the Award of the tribunal, known as kuch Award, did not constitute the acquisition of territory by Pakistan.


A state may also acquire territory if the inhabitants of a given territory wish to merge it with another state. Plebiscite is conducted in a disputed area.

Modes of Loss of Territory:-

Acquisition of a state territory by one state, except in case of occupation, is a loss of state territory for another state. So, a state may lose territory by cession, accretion, subjugation, prescription, award and plebiscite. In addition to these, a state may also lose territory by.


Through secession a state loses a part of its territory, either by revolt or peacefully. Seceding parts become new states, independent of other states.


Peaceful Secession: Secession of Estonia, Latnia and Lithuania in 1991 from U.S.S.R.

Secession by Revolt: Secession of East Pakistan in from Pakistan into Bangladesh (1991)

Grant of Independence by the Metropolitan State.

Grant of independence by the metropolitan state to its colonies.Colonies acquire new and separate international personality after severance.


Also called abandonment or relinquishment. It frees a country from the sovereignty of the present owner state. It requires first actual abandonment of a territory and secondly, the intention of giving up sovereignty over it. The derelictal territory may be occupied by another state or become an independent state.


Island of Santa Lucia

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