The Politics of Military Occupation

By Peter M. R. Stirk | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
Sovereignty and Occupation

The concept of sovereignty has played a key role the emergence of the idea of military occupation as a distinctive phenomenon, in the various definitions of it and in the contentious notion that inhabitants could be under an obligation to obey occupiers. Unlike the latter notion, the concept of sovereignty has remained central to reflection on military occupation even where the fact of military occupation has been denied. The persistent relevance of the concept of sovereignty has been ensured by its presumed centrality to the international order and by the fact that the function of the concept of military occupation, paradoxically, was to account for the persistence of sovereignty despite the physical presence of the occupier. Here, the existence of the ousted sovereign or the ousted sovereign’s government served as evidence of the threatened continuity of the state. It was paradoxical because the fact of occupation entailed the assertion of the authority of the occupier, prevented the exercise of sovereign power, and could form the prelude to the cession of the territory, in whole or part. The threat posed by occupation was enhanced by the tendency to identify sovereignty as essential to a state and simultaneously to identify whatever governmental functions states typically exercised as manifestations of the concept of sovereignty.1 Yet, by the same token, the occupier, even if not understood as a temporary sovereign, also served as a placeholder for the threatened sovereignty, preserving the existence of government; without this the state would dissolve into anarchy, which it was presumed the international community could not tolerate.2 A recognisably similar logic is now used to justify international administration of ‘failed’ states.3

When the concept of military occupation began to crystallise, it was evident that the continued existence of the sovereign ruler was not the only guarantee of continuity. The persistent refusal of the population to submit, save under direct threat of the use of force, could fulfil the same function. That argument was invoked in a case which commanded attention for over a century, namely the fate of the Republic of Genoa. Genoa, having been conquered by France in 1797 and

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