Duhaime's Law Dictionary

State Definition:

Groups of people which have acquired international recognition as an independent country and which have a population, a common language and a defined and distinct territory.

Related Terms: Government, Crown, International Law, Law of Nations, Nation, Citizenship, Sovereign, Sovereignty, State Immunity

A term of international law; an independent country with standing in international law such as by membership in the United Nations, recognition by other states and adherence to international treaties. An example would be Iceland (map, pictured below).

"Modern definitions of a State," wrote Woodrow Wilson in the years before he became President of the United States, "always limit sovereignty to some definite land. A State - runs the modern definition - is a people organized for law within a definite territory."

Quoting the Swiss jurist Johann Kaspar Bluntschli (1808-1881), Wilson added:

"The State is the politically organized people of a particular land.... all other authoritative writers similarly set distinct physical boundaries to the state.

"Such an idea would not have been intelligible to the first builders of government. They could not have understood why they might not move their whole people, bag and baggage, to other lands, or why, for the matter of that, they might not keep them moving their tents and possession unrestingly from place to place in perpetual migration...."

Consider, also these words used by Justice Oakes of the United States Court of Appeals, to define state in Klinghoffer v. SNC Achille Lauro:

"Entities that have a defined territory and a permanent population, that are under the control of their own government, and that engage in, or have the capacity to engage in, formal relations with other such entities."

In Matter of Beagle, Justice Lynch of the Supreme Court of New York suggested:

"(A) State is a body politic or a society of men. In a geographical sense, a State is that territory over which the particular body politic exercises sovereignty."


Farley wrote:

"States are the recognized actors in international politics - not nations. "Nations (typically ethnic groups each with a common language and a common sense of community) differ from states in one vitally important way: states possess the attribute of sovereignty.

"Nationhood is a demographic and psychological phenomenon; statehood is a formal-legal phenomenon. Only states, that is, possessors of sovereignty, may become members of the state system."

The 1933 Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (aka Montevideo Convention) specifically defines statehood, at ¶1 as:

"The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a permanent population; a defined territory; government; and capacity to enter into relations with the other states."

In Estates of Ungar v. Palestinian Authority, Justice Lagueux of the United States District Court (Rhode Island) wrote:

"Only States enjoy sovereign immunity.... International law determines statehood. The 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States sets forth the legal standard for evaluating an entity's claim to statehood. Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (entered into force Dec. 26, 1934, hereinafter "Montevideo Convention"). Under the Montevideo Convention, an entity is a State when it possesses: (1) a permanent population; (2 )a defined territory; (3 )a government and (4) the capacity to enter into relations with other states. The United States adopted these criteria ... Federal courts consistently apply the four criteria to determine whether or not an entity is a State and thus qualifies for the protections of sovereign immunity."

But international law wavers on this somewhat circular definition, historically relying on neat numbered lists such as the 1933 sample above, other times considering an applicant for recognition as a state against criteria of permanence, compliance with international law, civilization, legal order and recognition by other established states.

Farley adds that:

"Sovereign states ... have three absolute prerogatives: independence, equality and unanimity. Independence means a state is completely free to organize any system of government, proclaim an official religion of its choice, and structure its economy as it sees fit. No outside state ... has any right to interfere in these strictly internal matters. Equality means every state is of equal rank with every other state.... Unanimity means that no state is bound by the majority decisions reached by groups of states. A state is bound only if it agrees to be bound. Even then, a state exercising the principle of rebus sic stantibus (changed circumstances) may later renege on an agreement."


Confusing to laypersons, within domestic constitutional law, and in some states, the term refers to smaller geographical and political units, not having international law presence but exercising limited local jurisdictions within its borders. For example, the United "States" of America is comprised of 50 states; yet the USA is a state and a nation for the purposes of international law, the United Nations, and towards other such states, of which the UN is comprised of 192 "states".


See also the definition of nation and the articles at International Law including International Law: A Primer.

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