How to govern borders? Pluralism about Territorial Rights and Its Consequences for Border Control

with Paulina Ochoa Espejo


The Stockholm Centre for International Law and Justice invites you to a seminar with

Paulina Ochoa Espejo
How to govern borders?

Pluralism about Territorial Rights and Its Consequences for Border Control

How should a country govern its borders? If borders are the limit of a state’s territory, doesn’t a country have a right to police entry according to its own laws, or to build a wall within its jurisdiction? This paper examines the morality of border governance and border control by turning to new developments in the philosophy of territorial rights. It argues that countries do not have an unqualified right to dispose of their borders, because territorial rights do not grant states a unified right over land. Territorial rights are fundamentally plural: The right to border control is independent from the other territorial rights, such as the right to jurisdiction and the right over natural resources.

The article uses this pluralist thesis to provide an analysis of the right to control borders, specifying its object, proper site, scope, institutions, duty-bearers, and holders. It also establishes a conclusion that reaches beyond the politics of immigration or border walls: the paper argues that border-control rights have a different grounding than the rights to jurisdiction or natural resources. While the latter may be grounded in internal legitimacy, the former are grounded in international conventions. This theory, which I call “pluralist conventionalism,” shows that borders require shared and reciprocal governance by adjoining countries. This explains why it is wrong to police the border inside the state’s territory and to unilaterally build border walls. The theory, moreover, has implications for border placement, border control, and the morality of extending border politics inside a state’s territory.

Paulina Ochoa Espejo (MA, Essex; PhD, Johns Hopkins) is the William Penn Foundation Professor and professor of political science at Haverford College. Before joining Haverford, she was an Assistant Professor at Yale University and a Postdoctoral Fellow in the University of Notre Dame. She has been a visiting professor at CIDE in Mexico City, Visiting Fellow at the University Center for Human Values, Princeton University, a member of the School of Social Sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and a recipient of a Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies. She is the author of On Borders: Territories, Legitimacy and the Rights of Place (Oxford University Press, 2020), The Time of Popular Sovereignty: Process and the Democratic State (Penn State University Press, 2011), co–editor of the Oxford Handbook of Populism (Oxford University Press, 2017).

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