International legal personality is a status attained by an entity once it acquires rights and obligations under international law, coupled with ‘some form of community acceptance.’1 In 1948 the International Court of Justice recognised the diversity of entities that possess international legal personality.2 The nature of international legal personality varies according to the type of entity concerned.3

Some entities, chiefly sovereign states, automatically acquire rights, obligations and international legal personality upon coming into existence,4 while other entities will not have personality until rights or obligations are conferred upon them. The former type of personality is known as ‘objective personality’ and entitles an entity to be accepted by all other international persons; consequently it is more difficult to obtain.5 The latter type, called ‘qualified personality’, is easier to obtain but is binding only on those international persons that consent to be bound.6

Sovereign states

The sovereign state is the fundamental building block and primary subject of public international law.7 Because states automatically acquire rights, obligations and international legal personality upon their creation, identifying an entity as a state will affect its position within the international legal order.8

The definition of a state according to customary international law is accurately codified in the 1933 Montevideo Convention,9 which provides that a ‘State as a person of international law should possess … : (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with other states.’10 This formal definition may be applied less strictly in pursuance of self-determination and where an entity is overwhelmingly recognised as a state by the international community.11

As Nauru, Tuvalu and the Vatican City demonstrate, there is no lower limit to the size of the population or territory of a state.12 The territory of the state does not need to be accurately defined or settled, so long as the government of the entity undeniably controls recognisable territory.13

The International Committee of Jurists indicated in 1930 that the requirement of government involves a central authority strong enough to assert itself over the territory without foreign assistance.14 However, state practice indicates that such a level of stability will not apply to an already established undergoing civil war or experiencing a collapse of law and order, as in Somalia and other so-called ‘failed states.’15 In some cases, such as the states that emerged following the dissolution of the territory claimed, so long as there is widespread recognition within the international community (evidenced, for example, by United Nations membership) or a firm basis of government (even if not wholly effective).16

The polity must also have the capacity to enter into legal relations with other states. This is analogous to independence17 — it is the quality of a state of not having any authority other than international law above it.18 Independence must be formal (or legal);19 mere influence of by one state upon the affairs of another state will not breach this condition.20 However, there is some argument that it must also be actual (or factual) independence, and the international community will not tolerate sham states that are established for an improper purpose or are satellite or puppet states that are incapable of resisting the authority of another state.21 Temporary administration will not affect the sovereignty of a state provided that this administration is with the general approval of the international community.22

State-like entities

Many entities have a limited international legal personality as a result of their state-like features. Mandated territories, for example, are administered by a third-party state according to the terms of the mandate, and, while the third-party state can direct the affairs of the territory, breach of the obligations will terminate the mandate.23 Mandates in the past have not transferred sovereignty to the administrating state — the mandated territory maintained a distinct international legal personality of its own.24 A condominium territory — where two or more states exercise sovereignty over it in accordance with a treaty — does not have a distinct personality of its own, but its government is exercising jointly-delegated authority.25

Although it is not widely recognised as a state, Taiwan possesses the attributes of a state and has acquired sufficient personality to engage with and participate in international organisations.26 On the other hand, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus only has international legal personality in respect of its relations with Turkey, as the international community does not recognise it as a legitimate state.27 Instead, it is an administered territory within Cyprus, and effectively a Turkish dependency.28

Western Sahara lacks a government capable of asserting itself over the territory, Kosovo lacks sufficient recognition, and Palestine lacks definite territory, but all three have a degree of qualified international legal personality within the context of bilateral or multilateral agreements or organisations.29 The European Union has qualified but undisputed international legal personality by virtue of the Treaty on European Union which explicitly confers personality upon it,30 although it is not a state in its own right.

By contrast to these territory-based entities, there are a number of entities that possess (or claim to possess) international legal personality without occupying or possessing territory.31 National liberation movements often have a degree of international legal personality as a consequence of their involvement in decolonisation and the transformation of former colonial possessions into independent states, though the nature of this personality is controversial and unsettled.32

Corporations, individuals and organisations

Corporations constituted by agreement between states may possess qualified international legal personality if there are non-reliant on the laws of one state, as might transnational corporations insofar as international agreements regulate them by conferring legal rights and obligations that transcend domestic law.33 An example is investor-state dispute settlement provisions in treaties which allow an investor corporation to take direct action against a state under the terms of that treaty.

Individuals may possess qualified international legal personality where treaties endow them with standing to bring actions directly under the treaty,34 a situation most commonly encountered in international human rights aw.35 International organisations may also have the power to enter into relations with states to the extent that they can conclude treaties with those states: these organisations definitely have international legal personality.36


Although all states inherently enjoy international legal personality, a number of non-state entities with varying characteristics are capable of assuming some kind of international legal personality. When a state recognises an entity as having international legal personality, it demonstrates a willingness to conduct relations under international law with that entity. Shaw argues that ‘international personality … centres not so much upon the capacity of the entity … to possess international rights and duties, as upon the the actual attribution of rights and/or duties on the international plane.’37

When we speak of ‘international legal personality’ we are referring to the assumption by an entity of rights and obligations directly under international law, whether broad or narrow in nature.

  1. Malcolm N Shaw, International Law (Cambridge University Press, 7th ed, 2014) 143, 192–193.

  2. Reparations for Injuries Suffered in the Service of the United Nations (Advisory Opinion) [1939] ICJ Rep 174, 178.

  3. Daniel Patrick O’Connell, International Law (Stevens, 2nd ed, 1970) 80–82.

  4. David Harris, Cases and Materials on International Law (Sweet & Maxwell, 7th ed, 2012) 96.

  5. Reparations for Injuries Suffered in the Service of the United Nations (Advisory Opinion) [1939] ICJ Rep 174, 185; Shaw, above n 1, 190.

  6. Shaw, above n 1, 190.

  7. Ibid 143, 191.

  8. Harris, above n 4, 96.

  9. Harris, above n 4, 92; Shaw, above n 1, 144.

  10. Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, signed 12 July 1933, 165 LNTS 19 (entered into force 26 December 1934) art I.

  11. Shaw, above n 1, 149–151.

  12. Harris, above n 4, 92.

  13. See, eg, Deutsche Continental Gas-Gesellschaft v Polish State (1929) 5 AD 11, 15.

  14. Aaland Islands (Advisory Opinion) [1920] LNOJ Spec Supp No 3, 3.

  15. Harris, above n 4, 93–94; Shaw, above n 1, 147.

  16. Shaw, above n 1, 146–147.

  17. Harris, above n 4, 98; Shaw, above n 1, 147.

  18. See, eg, Austro-German Customs Union (Advisory Opinion) [1931] PCIJ (ser A/B) No 41, 55–58.

  19. Ibid 41.

  20. French Indemnity of 1831 (1831) 5 Moore Int Arb 4447, 4472.

  21. Policies of apartheid of the Government of South Africa: The so-called independent Transkei and other batustans, GA Res 31/6A, UN GAOR 31st sess, 42nd plen mtg, Supp No 39, UN Doc A/RES/31/6A (26 October 1976); Hersch Lauterpacht, Recognition in International Law (Cambridge University Press, 1948) 26–39; Harris, above n 4, 100–101.

  22. Shaw, above n 1, 166–169.

  23. See, eg, Legal Consequences for States of the Continued Presence of South Africa in Namibia (Advisory Opinion) [1971] ICJ Rep 16.

  24. Harris, above n 4, 192.

  25. Shaw, above n 1, 165–166.

  26. Shaw, above n 1, 170; Harris, above n 4, 96.

  27. SC Res 541, UN SCOR 38th sess, 2500th mtg, UN Doc S/RES/541 (18 November 1983); SC Res 544, UN SCOR 38th sess, 2500th mtg, UN Doc S/RES/544 (15 December 1983); Cyprus v Turkey [2001] IV Eur Court HR 1, 21.

  28. Shaw, above n 1, 171.

  29. Ibid 172.

  30. Treaty on European Union, opened for signature 7 February 1992, [2012] OJ C 326/01 (entered into force 1 November 1993) art 47.

  31. See, eg, Shaw, above n 1, 178–179.

  32. Ibid 180.

  33. Ibid 181–183.

  34. See, eg, Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, opened for signature 4 November 1950, 213 UNTS 221 (entered into force 3 September 1953); Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, opened for signature 16 December 1966, 999 UNTS 171 (entered into force 23 March 1976); International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, opened for signature 21 December 1965, 660 UNTS 195 (entered into force 4 January 1969).

  35. Shaw, above n 1, 188.

  36. Reparations for Injuries Suffered in the Service of the United Nations (Advisory Opinion) [1949] ICJ Rep 174; Shaw, above n 1, 189–190.

  37. Shaw, above n 1, 192.