Since the Second World War, the international community has formally declared itself in favour of the stability of boundaries between states. The Charter of the United Nations set the scene in 1945 by recognising that the sovereignty of a properly constituted state is absolute and exclusive, and that states must respect the territorial integrity of one another. The principle of the inviolability of boundaries has been confirmed on a number of subsequent occasions. In 1964, member states of the Organisation of African Unity agreed to respect the borders that they had inherited from colonial times. In 1975 in the Helsinki Final Act, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe affirmed the same principle, while in 1991 the Commonwealth of Independent States (the majority of the states of the former Soviet Union) also agreed to accept their inherited boundaries. States in Latin America had set the trend in the nineteenth century when they became independent of Spain and Portugal, a principle known as Uti possidetis. These worthy declarations, alas, have not rid the world of boundary disputes. On the contrary, Africa, Europe, the former Soviet Union and Latin America have all witnessed a large number of boundary disputes, and some spectacular changes to the political map. The truth is that the world political map is changing all the time, and will continue to change in future.
Boundary disputes must therefore be seen in the context of an evolving political mosaic. In many cases, disputes result in territorial adjustments, but the political map also changes in response to other powerful processes. Goertz and Diehl (1992) undertook an analysis of territorial changes worldwide from 1816 to 1980. Of 770 territorial transfers, 42.3 per cent were by cession, 15.6 per cent by conquest, 15.5 per cent on independence and 14.5 per cent by annexation. Other causes were secession, unification and mandates. Since 1980, there have been large-scale changes to the world map, particularly in the wake of the break-up of the Soviet Union. Altogether, twenty-two new states have emerged, and more than fifty new land boundaries. A series of world maps in Foucher (1988) tracing the evolution of international boundaries since 1800 strikingly reveal how the political arrangement of space can change through time. The world map of 100 years ago is scarcely recognisable; it is doubtful whether today’s world map will be recognisable a century hence. The popular perception is that the map we know is permanent, a kind of finished product. In reality, it is a snapshot of geopolitical history.
There are 191 independent states and seventy dependent territories in the world today. Most of the surviving dependencies are islands. Seven states retain territorial claims to Antarctica, but these boundaries are not considered here. There are 308 land boundaries between sovereign states (Biger 1995), although some authorities find a few more. Out of the 191 independent states, 148 are coastal states with the right to delimit their