19th century

Uti possidetis and the independence movements in Latin America


Uti Possidetis is a Latin term which means ‘as you possess’. According to one explanation of this principle of international law, the parties to a treaty can retain possession of what they have acquired by force during the war. Territories and property can remain in the hands of a belligerent state after a war, unless otherwise provided by a treaty. When a war ends a treaty formed can adopt the principle of uti possidetis, or the principle of status quo ante bellum, or a combination of the two. The principle of status quo ante bellum means ‘the state of things before the war’. If a treaty consists of no condition regarding the possession of property and territory taken by force, the doctrine of uti possidetis will prevail.
More recently, the principle has been used in a modified form to establish the frontiers of newly independent states following decolonization, by ensuring that the frontiers followed the original boundaries of the old colonial territories from which they emerged.
The first practical implication of uti possidetis traces back to anti-colonial independence movements in Latin America in the 19th century. The same principle was applied to Africa and Asia following the withdrawal of European powers from those continents. In 1964 the Organisation of African Unity passed a resolution stating that the principle of stability of borders – the key principle of uti possidetis – would be applied across Africa. Dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia also followed the principle of status quo regarding international boundaries.
Uti possidetis juris, as it stands at the present, is based on two ideas: self-determination and the non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.