Somalia and the question of territory

Cara Nine at Territory and Justice raises the question of Somalia. Her reference is to a piece in Der Spiegel and some BBC pieces. For her, the question is

The case of the failed state is interesting because it forces the question: who has rights over territory and resources when the state has failed?  (And what are the contents of those rights?)

While this is undoubtedly a fair question, the way it is posed allows me to clearly diffentiate what I am doing from the growing political theory interest in territory. That work, it seems to me, takes ‘territory’ as relatively unproblematic concept, and then looks at how questions of rights, justice, power, etc. relate to it. Important enough, but for me the question is that of ‘territory’ itself. So to put it terms of Somalia, the question would rather be: How does the idea of the ‘failed state’ get produced, how is it deployed and to what purpose, and – most fundamentally – how does it force us to rethink what we mean by territory?

I tried to explore some of these questions in Chapter Three of Terror and Territory. This was done both in terms of the idea of ‘failed states’ or ‘weak states’ generally, but also specifically in the case of Somalia (pp. 99-107). If we follow the fairly standard definiton of territory as a ‘bounded space under the control of a group’, what happens when the control is questioned or there are rival groups asserting it; when the space is not homogeneous; when the boundaries are disputed? Or, how does Max Weber’s famous definition of the state laying claim to a monopoly of physical violence within a defined territory or region (Gebiet) apply here? Is Somalia, by the UN or others, being asked to meet standards that it is never likely to achieve? And, perhaps revealed by the way the BBC looks at it, why is an unrecognised polity, such as Somaliland, described as a ‘territory’ rather than a ‘state’? We’ve seen this before historically – the ‘states’ of the US were often labelled as ‘territories’ before statehood – and in the present: British overseas territories, the Palestian territories, the Australian Northern Territory, etc. I think that there are therefore plenty of questions to be asked before one such as Cara’s can be answered.

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