How to Solve Territorial Disputes

Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has got me thinking about territorial disputes. However Israeli leaders and much of its population wants all of Jerusalem and a negotiated splitting of the city (with the Arab Old City going to Palestine to be its capital and the western Jewish section going to Israel) seems unlikely. However, there seems to be an assumption that territories cannot be overlapping. That assumption underlies much of modern international law dealing with territorial sovereignty issues. I would like to question that assumption in this open ended post. I hope to raise some questions that inspire debate about territorial disputes and creative solutions.

We know that many bloody wars have been fought and many nations continue to have tense relationships over disagreements over territory. China and India are both nuclear armed countries who have fought wars and continue to have border skirmishes over land. India and Pakistan as well as Russia and Ukraine. Islands in the S. China sea sometimes have multiple claimants leading to acrimonious relations and possibility of armed conflict.

My proposal seems to me to be novel and I would appreciate any feedback from anyone who is knowledgeable on the subject.

Simply put, my idea is of overlapping territories as a solution to territorial disputes. Say the example of an imaginary city Bunkerville. Two countries, Eng and Chang, claim it as their own capital. The inhabitants of Bunkerville are divided into two nationalities (Engans and Changans).

One way to settle it would be to have that city geographically divided (one half of the city go to Eng and the other half go to Chang) and then segregate the population accordingly. That’s similar to the status quo situation for Jerusalem and many of the proposed settlement solutions.

But why can’t it remain intact while being the capital of both?

Perhaps residents of the city who are the citizens of one country can only vote in their elections while residents who are citizens of the other country can only in theirs but the city is otherwise undivided and remain multi-national. The benefit is that BOTH countries can then claim all of the city (and for historical and cultural reasons they may both have some justification to lay claim). This is analogous to Siamese twins who share a piece of flesh.

I see no obvious problems with this. Now convincing people that this is a viable solution is an altogether different issue but the current status quo for many intractable territorial disputes seem no better and possibly worse. So new solutions must be at least put on the table for discussion. Things overlap in nature and in man-made society. There are no metaphysical issues. There appears to be no political issues within international law that would disallow this. What about legal issues?

Laws may have to be adjusted so that some laws only apply to one group but not the other or else have the citizens decide on laws that all can live with which may be different from their respective countries proper. But consider countries like Malaysia where you have three main populations: Tamil Indians, Chinese and Malay. These three main groups have different religions and customs but live mostly harmoniously in one country. The laws of Malaysia are often group-relative. Indians and Chinese are able to buy liquor for example while the Muslim Malay are by law not allowed (as alcohol is Haram in Islam) for example. Belgium has a similar scenario where laws apply to specific populations of citizens.

There are practical problems. The first of which is simply getting the people of both nations to agree to this. It might be something of a compromise and territorial disputes are often uncompromising. However if no other obvious and better solutions are available, this should be an option for a modus vivendi.

I’m sure there are lots of other problems but also potential benefits to this solution but it may very well be better than the dangerous and seemingly intractable positions we see around the world today.