In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Boundaries

  • Introduction
  • Boundaries and Geography
  • General Overviews
  • Monographic Treatises
  • Collective Works
  • History of Boundaries
  • River and Lake Boundaries
  • Maritime Boundaries
  • Airspace and Outer Space Boundaries
  • Maps and Evidentiary Issues
  • Regional Boundaries
  • Boundary Conflicts

International Law Boundaries
Giuseppe Nesi, Paolo Turrini
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0244


Article 1 of the 1933 Montevideo Convention famously includes “a defined territory” among the four qualifications for statehood. This requirement is seen as reflective of customary law by many, whereas others hold the view that a defined territory is a pre-legal condition for exercising sovereignty in a community of equal states. Even if this can be doubted, based on the observation that some territorial entities in world history have fared well even with no clear understanding of their precise borders, it is true that the current international society has accepted the idea that boundaries are necessary. All in all, the idea that a “defined territory” is a prerequisite for statehood must allow for the possibility of some segments of the frontier line being undetermined (here and in the following we use the words “boundary,” “border,” and “frontier” interchangeably). This bibliography lists a number of items as starting references for research on the concept of a boundary, its history, its application in specific geographical contexts, and its role in interstate disputes (having in mind that the distinction between boundary and territorial disputes is a matter of quantity rather than quality). The point of view is primarily legal, but other perspectives—sociological, historical, geographical, anthropological, and political, inter aliahave given rise to a copious literature, including no less than five journals devoted to borders and border areas (Journal of Borderlands Studies; International Journal of Migration and Border Studies; Border and Regional Studies; Borders in Globalization Review; and Journal of Territorial and Maritime Studies). Since these approaches may be fruitful in light of what is usually known as cross-fertilization among different disciplines, non-legal studies are occasionally referred to, convinced as we are that lawyers should not ignore the origins, consequences, and other “surroundings” of their objects of study. Conversely, we leave out those subjects that are extensively covered by other Oxford Bibliographies articles, such as “Territorial Title”, “Secession,” and, save for some scattered bibliographic elements, “Uti Possidetis Iuris” (but other entries are quoted below). Some internal cross-references, to be found in introductory paragraphs and elsewhere, are present, given the unavoidable overlapping between sections.

Boundaries and Geography

Interest in boundaries in an international law perspective breeds interest in the actual position of boundary lines, both on maps and on the ground. Unfortunately, no official cartographic work is available; even if it were, the issue of its constant update would remain (for instance, the complete International Boundaries: A Geopolitical Atlas, authored by Ewan W. Anderson and published by Routledge, dates back to 2003). The problem could be tackled by making geographical data available online, which is done by the World Bank Official Boundaries project (also at an intra-state level, which would prove useful when uti possidetis becomes applicable) and other databases. The United Nations Initiative on Global Geospatial Information Management aims to improve states’ capacity to collect topographical data, whereas the mandate of the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names includes addressing the issue of cartographic denominations (which may be relevant in boundary disputes). One has to keep in mind, though, the disclaimer repeated by these organizations: designations and maps do not imply the expression of such bodies’ opinion concerning the delimitation of boundaries. However, a role of these institutions in boundary-marking is advocated by Claussen 2009, especially by making use of advanced technological tools. Geographers like Samuel Whittemore Boggs and Stephen B. Jones, in turn, have stressed the difficulty of carrying out actual demarcation starting from delimitation as set out in treaties and maps (Whittemore Boggs 1940, Jones 1943, and Jones 1945). Speaking of inter-state agreements and border lines drawn over maps, even if no atlas exists that can provide reliable and up-to-date information on boundaries, especially those that are contested, the international lawyer may be interested in works—such as Tertrais and Papin 2016 and Nikolic 2019—which focus on specific boundary settings, chosen for their saliency or strangeness. Far from being a mere divertissement, this literature shows how political needs may shape boundaries in unexpected ways. For a longer historical account, still rich in maps, see Foucher 1991; it could perhaps have featured in the next section (General Overviews), so it can be seen as the trait d’union with it.

  • Claussen, Kathleen. “Invisible Borders: Mapping Out Virtual Law?” Denver Journal of International Law and Policy 37.2 (2009): 257–278.

    This article is based on the premise that many boundary disputes are not due to doubts about the applicable law but, rather, on actual demarcation problems. Three cases are used to illustrate how virtual boundary-marking by technical means could perform their function better than monumentation. Thus, the author proposes the creation of a UN agency entrusted with the task of virtual demarcation.

  • Foucher, Michel. Fronts et frontières: un tour du monde géopolitique. 2d ed. Paris: Fayard, 1991.

    This second edition of a voluminous study first published in 1988 is divided in four parts based on a criterion that appears primarily geographical but may be best understood as both geopolitical and historical in nature. Indeed, the reasons, ways, and timing of the emergence of current boundaries are explained with the help of several dozen maps.

  • Jones, Stephen B. “The Description of International Boundaries.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 33.2 (1943): 99–117.

    DOI: 10.1080/00045604309357245

    “Cases of international discord of serious nature have been caused by slight and unintentional ambiguities in the description of boundaries in formal documents” (p. 99). Based on this observation, the author suggests how to clarify such a descriptive process. He illustrates methods of, and errors in, description and addresses boundary descriptors with reference to a detailed topographic categorization.

  • Jones, Stephen B. Boundary-Making: A Handbook for Statesmen, Treaty Editors and Boundary Commissioners. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1945.

    Written by a geographer for policymakers, this book provides valuable suggestions on the delimitation and demarcation of borders. International lawyers must keep in mind that boundary definition cannot be reduced to a set of rules, and that exact information about the borderland should be obtained in the field, by direct observation. The current value of this contribution is discussed by Donaldson and Williams in a 2008 issue of the Geopolitics journal.

  • Nikolic, Zoran. The Atlas of Unusual Borders: Discover Intriguing Boundaries, Territories and Geographical Curiosities. Bishopbriggs, UK: Collins, 2019.

    This humorous book is composed of just under fifty short chapters, each devoted to a border-related aspect—an unusual aspect, as the title reads—linked to one or more cases from all over the world. Despite some boundaries being domestic, this work is pleasant and instructive reading for international lawyers as well.

  • Tertrais, Bruno, and Delphine Papin. L’Atlas des frontières: murs, conflits, migrations. Paris: Les Arènes, 2016.

    This book, full of colorful maps, is divided into five sections (“Inherited Frontiers,” “Invisible Frontiers,” “Walls and Migrations,” “Frontier-related Curiosities,” “Frontiers in Flames”). It also includes an appendix describing fifty famous “lines” in recent history. Translations in Italian and Spanish are available.

  • United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN).

    Created in 1959 (although it took its current name only in 1972), the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names is a team entrusted by the organization’s Economic and Social Council with the task of encouraging national and international geographical names standardization. As the 2006 Manual for the National Standardization of Geographical Names makes clear, this standing body also deals with named features that lie on or across international boundaries.

  • United Nations Initiative on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM).

    Established by the UN Economic and Social Council in 2011, the initiative is run by a Committee of Experts tasked with building and strengthening national and international capacity on geospatial information related, inter alia, to the drafting of legal instruments. In 2017, the Committee set up the UN Geospatial Network, gathering all agencies carrying out activities of geospatial nature (see the 2020 Blueprint Geospatial Landscape of the United Nations System).

  • Whittemore Boggs, Samuel. International Boundaries: A Study of Boundary Functions and Problems. New York: Columbia University Press, 1940.

    The book, enriched with a handful of useful tables and numerous figures and maps, provides an overview of boundaries in different world regions (United States, Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia), with a focus on water boundaries. The historical and material differences of such borders are stressed. The relation between the verbal description, the map, and the actual territory is a concern of the author, a geographer.

  • World Bank Official Boundaries.

    This website makes available geographical data concerning international and internal boundaries, including for world disputed areas, as GIS (Geographic Information System) files. The World Bank also provides a high-resolution world political map at. Maps—even older ones—are present on the UN website. Some historical country boundaries can be found at.

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