It is not uncommon to hear heads of state asserting that other states or international judicial bodies recognize their state’s ‘right to exist.’ While I have heard this right asserted time and again, I have not been able to determine what the grounds for such a right are, whether they are coherent or can be made to appear so.
States are contingent historical entities. They come into being to instantiate particular national and political ideologies; they are, more often than not, propped up by force and standing armies. (This is certainly how they maintain the integrity of their borders and often assert their foreign policies.) Why does such an entity have a right to exist, and why does the preservation of its existence impose a duty on others? Such a right sounds prima facie plausible presumably because to argue against it sounds suspiciously like arguing for the non-existence or destruction of the state in question. That, we can all agree, is a Bad Thing. But that is a confusion. No one denying the existence of a right to exist of a state X is committed to the destruction of the same state; they simply don’t buy the idea that the state possesses some right, natural or otherwise, that guarantees its existence.
What could the grounding of such a right be? It is common, of course, to postulate the rights of legal and political subjects, to speak of the legal, political, and moral rights of citizens of states and moral communities. But what rights do states have? We normally find it more coherent to speak of the duties of states to their citizens; we are used to pondering the limitations that may be placed on their powers. We may speak of the duties citizens have to their states; we can argue argue that these states have rights accruing to them by virtue of the powers and privileges and safeties they provide their citizens; we find the grounding of such duties in some of kind of reciprocity that these citizens owe their homes.
But even then, what duties may other states or the citizens of other states have to this state? And again, how does the mere fact of a state’s existence, an almost entirely contingent historical fact, depending on many accidents to make it a reality, impose a duty on others to respect the facts of that existence? What about the nature of states, their coming to be, and passing away, makes it the case that such entities have a right to exist? More curiously: does anything have the right to exist? What sort of demand on the ontology of this world could such a right be? I do not mean to be difficult or pedantic here. It is one thing altogether to demand that one’s existence be respected, that it not be impinged on, because continuing existence ensures the procurement of certain goods. But the desire that such ends not be curtailed only supports an argument to that effect; it does not generate the grounds for an abstract right to exist.