Successor states

Succession of states is a theory and practice in international relations regarding the recognition and acceptance of a newly created sovereign state by other states, based on a perceived historical relationship the new state has with a prior state. The theory has its root in 19th century diplomacy.


Succession may refer to the transfer of rights, obligations, and/or property from a previously well-established prior state (the predecessor state) to the new one (the successor state). Transfer of rights, obligations, and property can include overseas assets (embassies, monetary reserves, museum artifacts), participation in treaties, membership in international organizations, and debts. Often a state chooses piecemeal whether or not it wants to be considered the successor state. A special case arises, however, when the predecessor state was signatory to a human rights treaty, since it would be desirable to hold the successor state accountable to the terms of that treaty, regardless of the successor state's desires.

In an attempt to codify the rules of succession of states the Vienna Convention on Succession of States in respect of Treaties was drafted in 1978. It entered into force on November 6, 1996.[1]

A difficulty arises at the dissolution of a larger territory into a number of independent states. Of course, each of those states will be subject to the international obligations that bound their predecessor. What may become a matter of contention, however, is a situation where one successor state seeks either to continue to be recognised under the same federal name of that of its predecessor or to assume the privileged position in international organisations held by the preceding federation. Such states are then considered as a "continuator state".

International convention since the end of the Cold War has come to distinguish two distinct circumstances where such privileges are sought by such a successor state, in only the first of which may such successor states assume the name or privileged international position of their predecessor. The first set of circumstances arose at the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991. One of this federation's constituent republics, the Russian Federation, was declared the USSR's continuator state on the grounds that it contained 51% of the population of the USSR and 77% of its territory. In consequence, Russia agreed that it would acquire the USSR's seat as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.[2] All Soviet embassies became Russian embassies.

This resolution was in sharp contrast to the manner in which the United Nations dealt with the claim of the federation of Serbia and Montenegro to be recognised as the continuation of the state of Yugoslavia (albeit as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as opposed to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia). These two republics shared in common less than half of the population and territory of the former federation and in 1992 the UN refused to allow the new federation to sit in the General Assembly of the United Nations as a successor state under the name of "Yugoslavia". After Slobodan Milosevic was overthrown in 2000, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia accepted Resolution 777 and successfully joined the UN. From 1992 to 2003, many states uneasily referred to the state as the Former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In 2003, the state became a political union called the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro. In 2006, Montenegro, and then Serbia, declared independence, with Serbia being the successor state.

In a broader context, successor state is applied where the international law concept would be at best anachronistic; for example in universal history or comparative history.

There are therefore several, quite different possible connotations of successor state, in terms of the continuity implied.

  • The international law term implies legal links, on rights and the recognition of legitimacy of claims, but also on continuing treaty obligations, and the status of citizens who otherwise may become stateless.
  • Cultural continuity.
  • As a loose organisational term for historians, it implies not much more than a plausible link of parentage in a 'family tree' of groups of rulers; there need be no specific legacy going beyond physical possession.


Exceptions to orderly succession

There are several recent examples where succession of states, as described above, has not been entirely adhered to. This is only a list of the exceptions that have occurred since the creation of the United Nations. In previous historical periods, the exceptions would be too many to list.

See also


Further reading

  • Burgenthal/Doehring/Kokott: Grundzüge des Völkerrechts, 2. Auflage, Heidelberg 2000 (German)

External links

  • European Journal of International Law – State Succession in Respect of Human Rights Treaties
  • Wilfried Fiedler: , in: Staat und Recht. Festschrift für Günther Winkler, Wien, 1997, S. 217-236. (German)
  • Wilfried Fiedler: , in: B. Ziemske u.a. (Hrsg.), Festschrift für Martin Kriele, München 1997, S. 1371-1391 (German)
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