Doctrine of Equality of States

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One of the fundamental rights of a state is equality with all other states. This right is inherent in the concept of a state as a subject of international law and is given general recognition by long-standing state practice. Precise definition of the principle of equality of states is difficult, however, since many factors affect its application in any particular situation. Thus, it is best to differentiate between legal equality, that is, the concept of state equality as it applies to the legal relations that states maintain with each other, and political equality, which reflects the relative distribution of economic and military power between states.

In its legal effects the principle of state equality has several important consequences. Probably the most important manifestation of the doctrine is the right of every state to have one vote in matters requiring the consent of states. A natural consequence of this is that the vote of every state, no matter how large or small the state, counts the same as the individual votes of all other states. Legal equality also means that no state can claim jurisdiction over other states, and as corollary, a state is independent of the political will of all other states. From this also flows the concept of sovereign immunity, which prevents one state from being sued in the courts of another state without the consent of the first state. Likewise, equality of states means that no other state can question the legality of official acts of another state, a rule known in U.S. law as the act of state doctrine.

The doctrine of equality of states means one thing in legal effect, but it also must be reflected against the realities imposed by differences in political power. Political equality is in some sense a fiction, because in political terms few states are equals. More powerful states can establish arrangements that less powerful states assent to informally, even though under a strict legal regime, they would not be bound by the agreement.

The differences between legal and political equality are also recognized in the organization of the united nations. Although the Charter of the United Nations expressly recognizes the sovereign equality of states, and the General Assembly formally operates according to that principle, the five permanent members of the Security Council retain express veto power over several important aspects of U.N. functions, such as use of enforcement measures, admission to membership, amendments to the Charter, and election of the Secretary-General. Notwithstanding the fact that nations recognize limits on the principle of state equality in instances where political power is crucial, the principle of legal equality is basic to the operation of international law and a symbolic concept incorporated into the formal structure of most international institutions.