Right to exist

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French historian Ernest Renan defended the right to exist in "What Is a Nation?" (1882).

The right to exist is said to be an attribute of nations. According to an essay by the 19th-century French philosopher Ernest Renan, a state has the right to exist when individuals are willing to sacrifice their own interests for the community it represents. Unlike self-determination, the right to exist is an attribute of states rather than of peoples. It is not a right recognized in international law. The phrase has featured prominently in the Arab–Israeli conflict since the 1950s.

The right to exist of a de facto state may be balanced against another state's right to territorial integrity.[1] Proponents of the right to exist trace it back to the "right of existence", said to be a fundamental right of states recognized by writers on international law for hundreds of years.[2]

Historical use

Thomas Paine (1737–1809) used the phrase "right to exist" to refer to forms of government, arguing that representative government has a right to exist, but that hereditary government does not.[3] In 1823, Sir Walter Scott argued for the "right to exist in the Greek people".[4] (The Greeks were then revolting against Turkish rule.) According to Renan's "What is a Nation?" (1882), "So long as this moral consciousness [called a nation] gives proof of its strength by the sacrifices which demand the abdication of the individual to the advantage of the community, it is legitimate and has the right to exist. If doubts arise regarding its frontiers, consult the populations in the areas under dispute."[5] Existence is not a historical right, but "a daily plebiscite, just as an individual's existence is a perpetual affirmation of life," Renan said.[5] The phrase gained enormous usage in reference to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. "If Turkey has a right to exist – and the Powers are very prompt to assert that she has – she possesses an equally good right to defend herself against all attempts to imperil her political existence," wrote Eliakim and Robert Littell in 1903.[6] In many cases, a nation's right to exist is not questioned, and is therefore not asserted.[citation needed]



The right to exist of Armenia became known as the Armenian question during the Congress of Berlin in 1878, and would again be asked during the Armenian genocide in World War I.[7]

Basque nation

According to Basque nationalists, "Euzkadi (the name of our country in our own language) is the country of the Basques with as such right to exist independently as a nation as Poland or Ireland. The Basques are a very ancient people..."[8]


In 1947, a United Nations General Assembly resolution provided for the creation of an "Arab State" and a "Jewish State" to exist within Palestine in the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine. The Jewish Agency, precursor to the Israeli government, agreed to the plan, but the Palestinians rejected it and fighting broke out. After Israel's 14 May 1948 unilateral declaration of independence, support from neighboring Arab states escalated the 1947–48 Civil War in Mandatory Palestine into the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. The legal and territorial status of Israel and Palestine is still hotly disputed in the region and within the international community.

According to Ilan Pappé, Arab recognition of Israel's right to exist was part of Folke Bernadotte's 1948 peace plan.[9] The Arab states gave this as their reason to reject the plan.[9] In the 1950s UK MP Herbert Morrison cited then Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser as saying "Israel is an artificial State which must disappear."[10] The issue was described as the central one between Israel and the Arabs.[11]

After the June 1967 war, Egyptian spokesman Mohammed H. el-Zayyat stated that Cairo had accepted Israel's right to exist since the signing of the Egyptian–Israeli armistice in 1949.[12] He added that this did not imply recognition of Israel.[12] In September, the Arab leaders adopted a hardline "three nos" position in the Khartoum Resolution: No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel.[13] But In November, Egypt accepted UN Security Council Resolution 242, which implied acceptance of Israel's right to exist. At the same time, Nasser urged Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian leaders to reject the resolution. "You must be our irresponsible arm," he said.[14] King Hussein of Jordan also acknowledged that Israel had a right to exist at this time.[15] Meanwhile, Syria rejected Resolution 242, saying that it, "refers to Israel's right to exist and it ignores the right of the [Palestinian] refugees to return to their homes."[16]

Upon assuming the premiership in 1977, Menachem Begin spoke as follows: Our right to exist—have you ever heard of such a thing? Would it enter the mind of any Briton or Frenchman, Belgian or Dutchman, Hungarian or Bulgarian, Russian or American, to request for its people recognition of its right to exist? ... Mr. Speaker: From the Knesset of Israel, I say to the world, our very existence per se is our right to exist![17]

As reported by The New York Times, in 1988 Yasser Arafat declared that the Palestinians accepted United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which would guarantee "the right to exist in peace and security for all".[18] In June 2009, US president Barack Obama said "Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's."[19]

  State of Israel
  Countries that recognize Israel
  Countries that have withdrawn their recognition of Israel
  Countries that have suspended/cut bilateral ties with Israel
  Countries that have never recognized Israel
  Countries that have recognised the State of Palestine
  Countries that have not recognised the State of Palestine

In 1993, there was an official exchange of letters between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and chairman Arafat, in which Arafat declared that "the PLO affirms that those articles of the Palestinian Covenant which deny Israel's right to exist, and the provisions of the Covenant which are inconsistent with the commitments of this letter are now inoperative and no longer valid."[20]

In 2009 Prime Minister Ehud Olmert demanded the Palestinian Authority's acceptance of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, which the Palestinian Authority rejected.[21] The Knesset plenum gave initial approval in May 2009 to a bill criminalising the public denial of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, with a penalty of up to a year in prison.[22] In 2011 Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a speech to the Dutch Parliament that the Palestinian people recognise Israel's right to exist and they hope the Israeli government will respond by "recognizing the Palestinian state on the borders of the land occupied in 1967."[23]

Israeli government ministers Naftali Bennett and Danny Danon have repeatedly rejected the creation of a Palestinian state, with Bennett stating "I will do everything in my power to make sure they never get a state."[24][25] In June 2016 a poll showed that only 4 out of 20 Israeli ministers accepted the state of Palestine's right to exist.[26]

John V. Whitbeck argued that Israel's insistence on a right to exist forces Palestinians to provide a moral justification for their own suffering.[27] Noam Chomsky has argued that no state has the right to exist, that the concept was invented in the 1970s, and that Israel's right to exist cannot be accepted by the Palestinians.[28]

International law scholar Anthony Carty observed in 2013 that "the question whether Israel has a legal right to exist might appear to be one of the most emotively charged in the vocabulary of international law and politics. It evokes immediately the ‘exterminationist’ rhetoric of numerous Arab and Islamic politicians and ideologues, not least the present President of Iran." (referring to then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad)[29]


Representatives of the Kurdish people regularly assert their right to exist as a nation.[30][31][32]

Northern Ireland

The 1937 Constitution of Ireland originally claimed the national territory consisted of the whole of the island in Articles 2 and 3, denying Northern Ireland's right to exist.[33] These articles were changed such that the previous claim over the whole island of Ireland became instead an aspiration towards creating a united Ireland by peaceful means, "with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island" as part of the Good Friday Agreement ending The Troubles, a violent conflict between Irish nationalists and Ulster unionists from 1969 to 1998. The Good Friday signatories "recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland."[34][35]

North Korea

In the context of South Korea's and the United States non-recognition of the North Korean state and what the North views as a 'hostile policy' pursued by the United States, the North's government frequently accuses the United States of denying the 'right of existence' of North Korea. For instance, a 2017 Foreign Ministry statement declared, "The DPRK will redouble the efforts to increase its strength to safeguard the country's sovereignty and right to existence." North Korea itself does not recognise the right of existence of the Republic of Korea in the south.[36]


During the Russo-Ukrainian War, Russian government officials have denied Ukraine's right to exist. A few months before the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin published an essay "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians", in which he claimed there is "no historical basis" for the "idea of Ukrainian people as a nation separate from the Russians".[37] According to RBK Daily, the essay is required reading for the Russian military.[38] Former president Petro Poroshenko compared the essay to Hitler's Sudetenland speech.[39] Thirty-five legal and genocide experts said the essay laid "the groundwork for incitement to genocide" by "denying the existence" of Ukrainians as a people.[40] In 2024, Putin called Ukraine "an artificial state".[41]

Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia and former Russian president, commented that Putin outlined "why Ukraine did not exist, does not exist, and will not exist".[42] He said that Ukraine should not exist in any form and that Russia will continue to wage war against any independent Ukrainian state.[43]


  • 1791 Thomas Paine, Rights of Man: "The fact therefore must be that the individuals themselves, each in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a contract with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist."[44]
  • 1823 Sir Walter Scott: "Admitting, however, this right to exist in the Greek people, it is a different question whether there is any right, much more any call, for the nations of Europe to interfere in their support."[4]
  • 1882 Ernest Renan, "What is a nation?": So long as this moral consciousness gives proof of its strength by the sacrifices which demand the abdication of the individual to the advantage of the community, it is legitimate and has the right to exist [French: le droit d'exister].[5]
  • 1916 American Institute of International Law: "Every nation has the right to exist, and to protect and to conserve its existence."[45]
  • 1933 Nazis all over Germany checking if people had voted on withdrawal from the League of Nations said "We do this because Germany's right to exist is now a question of to be or not to be."[46]

See also


  1. ^ Lagerwall, Anne. "The Paradoxical Protection of State's Territorial Integrity by the United Nations: Law versus Power? [dead link]", Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Law and Society Association, Hilton Bonaventure, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, 27 May 2008.
  2. ^ Oppenheim, Lassa and Ronald Roxburgh, (2005) International Law Archived 5 January 2020 at the Wayback Machine, p. 192–193.
  3. ^ Paine, Thomas, "Dissertation on the First Principles of Government" (1795), The Life and Works of Thomas Paine, 5:221--25.
  4. ^ a b Scott, Walter, "The Greek Revolution Archived 2022-03-20 at the Wayback Machine", Edinburgh Annual Register of 1823, p. 249.
  5. ^ a b c Renan, Ernest, "What is a Nation? Archived 2013-03-19 at the Wayback Machine", 1882.
  6. ^ Littell, Eliakim and Robert S. Littell, "The Reign of Terror in Macedonia", The Living Age, April–June 1903, p. 68.
  7. ^ John Riddell (2014). To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921. Brill Academic. p. 28. ISBN 978-90-04-28803-4. Archived from the original on 5 April 2022. Retrieved 14 April 2015.
  8. ^ Nationalism, Naunihal Singh, Mittal Publications, 2006, p. 111.
  9. ^ a b Ilan Pappé, The Making of the Arab–Israeli Conflict, 1947–1951 Archived 29 March 2017 at the Wayback Machine, I.B.Tauris, 1994, p. 149.
  10. ^ *"Foreign Affairs; A Time to Find a Solution for Palestine", New York Times 2 August 1958. "Most Arab leaders do not even dare admit Israel's right to exist. They fear assassination by fanatics."
    *Parliamentary debates: Official report: Volume 547 (1956), Great Britain. Parliament. House of Commons: "I will give two short quotations, one from Colonel Nasser, the Prime Minister of Egypt, on 8th May, 1954. It is an extremist point of view based on the belief and the assertion that Israel has no right to exist at all."
    *"Arms and the Middle East", Toledo Blade, 30 September 1955. "the Arabs still refuse to acknowledge Israel's right to exist."
  11. ^ "And underlying all of the questions dividing Israel and its Arab neighbors, one issue is central: Does Israel have a right to exist?" (Farrell, James Thomas, It has come to pass Archived 5 January 2020 at the Wayback Machine, 1958)
  12. ^ a b Whetten, Lawrence L. (1974). The Canal War: Four-Power Conflict in the Middle East. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. p. 51. ISBN 0-262-23069-0.
  13. ^ "Khartoum Resolution". Council on Foreign Relations. Archived from the original on 20 May 2012. Retrieved 7 June 2012. The Khartoum Resolution passed by the Arab League in the wake of the 1967 war is famous for the "Three Nos" articulated in the third paragraph: No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel.
  14. ^ Alexander, Anne, Nasser, p. 150. ISBN 1-904341-83-7.
  15. ^ Dennon, Leon, "Key to Peace in Mideast", Owosso Argus-Press, 25 November 1967.
  16. ^ Lukacs, Yehuda, Israel, Jordan, and the Peace Process Archived 5 January 2020 at the Wayback Machine, 1999. Syracuse University Press, pp. 98–99.
  17. ^ "Statement to the Knesset by Prime Minister Begin upon the presentation of his government, June 20, 1977 Archived August 29, 2018, at the Wayback Machine", Volumes 4–5: 1977–1979, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
  18. ^ PAUL LEWIS (14 December 1988). "ARAFAT, IN GENEVA, CALLS ON ISRAELIS TO JOIN IN TALKS". New York Times. Archived from the original on 6 January 2016. Retrieved 12 October 2012.
  19. ^ "Middle East | Obama on Israeli-Palestinian 'stalemate'". BBC News. 4 June 2009. Archived from the original on 25 December 2015. Retrieved 21 January 2012.
  20. ^ "You are being redirected..." archive.adl.org. Archived from the original on 1 May 2017. Retrieved 22 May 2017.
  21. ^ "Olmert to Demand PA Accept Israel as Jewish State". Israel National News. 11 November 2007. Archived from the original on 13 March 2009. Retrieved 29 April 2009.
  22. ^ Shragai, Nadav, "Knesset okays initial bill to outlaw denial of 'Jewish state' Archived 2009-05-30 at the Wayback Machine", Haaretz, 30 May 2009.
  23. ^ 'We recognize Israel, they should recognize Palestine' Archived 22 July 2013 at the Wayback Machine. JPost, 30 June 2011.
  24. ^ David Remnick (21 January 2013), The settlers move to annex the West Bank—and Israeli politics. Archived 1 April 2014 at the Wayback Machine The New Yorker
  25. ^ Azulay, Moran (28 October 2013). "Bennett: Palestinian state a mistake, will work against it". Ynetnews. Archived from the original on 23 November 2013. Retrieved 23 November 2013.
  26. ^ Haaretz (27 June 2016). "Only Four of 20 Israeli Ministers Openly Declare Support of Two-state Solution". Haaretz. Archived from the original on 3 January 2017. Retrieved 1 January 2017.
  27. ^ Whitbeck, John V. (2 February 2007). "What 'Israel's right to exist' means to Palestinians". The Christian Science Monitor. Archived from the original on 8 March 2009. Retrieved 27 May 2009.
  28. ^ On the Future of Democracy Noam Chomsky interviewed by John P. Titlow Archived 24 May 2018 at the Wayback Machine, Dragonfire, June 2005
  29. ^ Carty, Anthony (January 2013). "Israel's Legal Right to Exist and the Principle of the Self-determination of the Palestinian People?" (PDF). The Modern Law Review. 76 (1): 158–177. doi:10.1111/1468-2230.12007. Archived (PDF) from the original on 3 December 2021. Retrieved 3 September 2020.
  30. ^ Official report of debates Authors Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe, Council of Europe, Council of Europe, 1994, p. 747.
  31. ^ Democracy and Human Rights in Multicultural Societies, Matthias Koenig, Paul F. A. Guchteneire, Unesco, Ashgate Publishing, 2007, p. 95.
  32. ^ Homeward Bound; KURDISTAN: In the Shadow of History. By Susan Meiselas, Random House, 1997, reviewed by Christopher Hitchens, Los Angeles Times, 7 December 1997.
  33. ^ Welsh, Frank (1 January 2003). The Four Nations: A History of the United Kingdom. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-09374-2.
  34. ^ Alan Whysall (March 2019). A Northern Ireland Border Poll (PDF) (Report). The Constitution Unit University College London. p. 4.
  35. ^ "British-Irish Agreement: Announcement". Dáil Éireann debates. 2 December 1999. pp. Vol.512 No.2 p.3 cc.337–340. Archived from the original on 14 May 2018. Retrieved 10 March 2020.
  36. ^ Killalea, Debra (14 September 2017). "Just what is North Korea up to now?". News.com.au. Archived from the original on 7 November 2017. Retrieved 31 October 2017.
  37. ^ Düben, B A. "Revising History and ‘Gathering the Russian Lands’: Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian Nationhood". LSE Public Policy Review, vol. 3, no. 1, 2023
  38. ^ "Шойгу обязал военных изучить статью Путина об Украине". РБК (in Russian). 15 July 2021. Archived from the original on 24 February 2022. Retrieved 6 February 2022.
  39. ^ "Статья Путина не об истории. Это — политический манифест с угрозами соседям" [Putin's article is not about history. It is a political manifesto with threats to neighbors]. 20 хвилин Украина (in Russian). Archived from the original on 5 February 2022. Retrieved 6 February 2022.
  40. ^ "Independent Legal Analysis of the Russian Federation's Breaches of the Genocide Convention in Ukraine and the Duty to Prevent" (PDF). New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy; Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. 27 May 2022. Archived (PDF) from the original on 16 June 2022. Retrieved 22 July 2022.
  41. ^ Vock, Ido (9 February 2024). "Tucker Carlson interview: Fact-checking Putin's 'nonsense' history". BBC News.
  42. ^ Luxmoore, Matthew (9 February 2024). "What Did Putin Gain From Sitting Down With Tucker Carlson?". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 23 February 2024.
  43. ^ "Putin Ally Says There's '100 Percent' Chance of Future Russia-Ukraine Wars". Newsweek. 17 January 2024.
  44. ^ Paine, Thomas, (1791) The Rights of Man
  45. ^ Root, Elihu, "The Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Nations Adopted by the American Institute of International Law Archived 2016-03-15 at the Wayback Machine" The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 10, No. 2, (Apr. 1916), pp. 211–221.
  46. ^ "All Germans rounded up to vote". The Guardian. London. 8 March 2006. Archived from the original on 25 November 2016. Retrieved 17 December 2016.


Further reading

External links