Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Nation Definition:

A distinct group or race of people that share history, traditions and culture.

Related Terms: State

Farley properly distinguishes a nation from a state, referring to a nation as:

"... typically ethnic groups with a common language and a common sense of community....

"Nationhood is a demographic and psychological phenomenon. Statehood is a formal-legal phenomenon."

Although a nation can form a distinct society, a nation is not an actor in international law or international politics; that is reserved for states.

T. Twiss defines a nation as:

"... a race of men ... an aggregate body of persons, exceeding a single family, who are connected by the ties of a common lineage and perhaps by a common language .... a society of persons occupying a common territory and united under a common government."1

In his 1936 book, Schultz defined a nation as:

"A people which looks upon itself as a politically separate community, has a political individuality, and contrasts itself with other political communities. An important factor .... is the community of language; this is, however, not essential and not necessarily resent."

International law often uses the term as if it were synonymous with state as in "United Nations" or 'League of Nations'.

extract from old dictionaryThe UN Charter includes a component of self-governance and ignores, within its definition of nation, concepts or units of non-self-governing groups of people.

More recently, the international law has evolved away from the term nation as it was commonly known to represent separate countries on the world map (see old dictionary extract pictured). Concurrent with this development, North American Indians bands have enthusiastically adopted the word and commonly refer to themselves as "nations" in order to emphasize their independence; as in the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (at fsin.com) or Cherokee Nation (cherokee.org). This, even through they are usually completely enveloped within an existing state or country for the purposes of international law, and have no independent standing therein but at the same time relying on this concept to seek, from time to time, international status.

In the result, and notwithstanding its prominence in inter-nation-al law, a contemporary definition of nation in international law has proven elusive.

One dictionary (Osmanczyk's "Encyclopedia of the UN and International Agreements") refers to the word as "an international term having no international definition", a rather circular proposition as the definition itself relies heavily on the term, as in "inter-nation-al law"!

Renan wrote in Qu'est-ce qu'une nation? (1882):

"A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things which are really only one go to make up this soul or spiritual principle. One of these things lies in the past, the other in the present. The one is the possession in common of a rich heritage of memories; and the other is actual agreement, desire to live together, and the will to continue to make the most of the joint inheritance.... The existence of a nation is a daily plebiscite, just as that of individuals is a continual affirmation of life."

John Stuart Mills, in Representative Government (1861), under the heading of "Nationality":

"A portion of mankind may be said to constitute a nationality if they are united amongst themselves by common sympathies which do not exist between them and any others - which make them cooperate with each other more willingly than with other people, desire to be under the same government, and desire that it should be government by themselves or a portion of themselves, exclusively."

Compare with state which is now, in international law, the preferred term for an independent country which has standing in international law.

References or Further Reading:

  • Bernhardt, Rudolf, Encyclopedia of Public International Law (1997).
  • Farley, L., Farley, L., Plebiscites and Sovereignty (London: Mansell Publishing Limited, 1986), page 7.
  • Schultz, F., Principles of Roman Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936), page 109.
  • Twiss, Travers, The Law of Nations Considered as Independent Political Communities (London: Oxford University Press, 1861) [note 1].

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