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Boundaries, Borders and Disputes

The Origin of Boundaries

Since the dawn of human civilization, people have felt a fundamental need to divide the world into territorial areas. The original divisions were often based upon the extent of available agricultural land, or on the influence of a central group or city over a surrounding area. 

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Gradually, as groups organized into empires and expanded their territories, they encountered other empires. Where the empires met, wars were often fought and eventually peace followed. The result, as long as one empire did not completely take over another, was an area of transition between the two territories—a type of border zone.

The importance of borders was not fully realized until the advent of the Age of Exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries. As European powers claimed new lands in the Americas, Africa, and Asia, they had to make a clear record of their territory and its resources. The record often took the form of maps created by skilled surveyors and cartographers who were part of the original expedition or who were later sent to the newly explored lands.

Eventually, as colonization continued and countries disagreed about overlapping territorial claims, the need for more precise boundaries became necessary. Border zones were no longer adequate for locating the exact limits of a country’s territory. However, with technological advances in surveying equipment, countries were able to more precisely locate and record their new boundaries. Maps served a critical role by acting as a public record for countries seeking to claim prior possession of an area. By the end of the 19th century, most of the world had been divided by boundaries into countries, colonial territories, or claims.

The 20th century’s largest conflicts—World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War—all served as reminders of how boundaries, when disputed, can affect entire regions and even distant countries. At their root, many military conflicts are related to claims over a boundary line that is not mutually agreed upon or over sections of territory claimed for various reasons by two or more countries. 

Boundaries can be an issue of national importance, driving citizens and their governments to anger and even war if other parties refute their claims. In addition, the modern reality of social, ethnic, and economic unrest within and among countries puts pressure on existing boundaries and claims. The need for new resources such as food, water, or oil to support a growing population often tests the strength of claims and boundaries.

With the creation of the League of Nations in 1919, at the end of World War I, countries had an impartial organization to approach for settling disputes through legal and peaceful means instead of going to war. The League considered more than 60 specific disputes. (The organization was ultimately replaced by the United Nations [UN] following World War II.) 

Military clashes over boundaries are still a reality today, but countries are now more willing to seek peaceful guidance from the UN and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), known as the World Court. In addition, the pressure asserted by regional powers such as the United States, Russia, and China, and alliances such as the UN, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Organization of African Unity (OAU), and others help to keep some disputes from escalating.

Types of Boundaries
A boundary line that divides one geographic area from another is often more complex than it seems on the map. The map may simply show a line of dashes running along the crest of a mountain range or down the middle of a major river, or just a straight line across a desert boundaries1.gif (16789 bytes)
But not all boundary lines are the same. Several different types exist, and these types are closely related to the history or current status of the line. The most common classes of boundary line are explained below.

An international boundary is a line that divides one country from another country by a mutual, peaceful agreement. A disputed boundary is an international or internal border openly contested by two or more countries or subdivisions within a country. A ceasefire line is established by an official ceasefire agreement between two or more countries; it represents a temporary international border created in response to a resolution of armed conflict. 

A treaty line is a boundary established by an official treaty between two or more countries, but not yet agreed upon by all countries involved. In Encarta World Atlas, this is represented in the same style as a ceasefire line. Finally, an indefinite boundary is an approximate boundary that has not yet been officially surveyed, or is based on outdated historical surveys. It may also be a boundary that is known to exist but for which accurate verification is lacking.

In addition to these formal boundaries, there are many informal types that reflect cultural differences, ethnic group distribution, or religious influences. Because of the dynamic nature of such boundaries, cartographers are unable to collect the precise data required to draw a map. Yet these boundaries can be just as real as an official international boundary: they not only divide a geographic space but also delineate the behavior and practices of the people in that space. The Ogaden region is the traditional home of nomadic peoples ethnically related to Somali tribes, yet it is currently divided between the countries of Ethiopia and Somalia. These peoples must contend with a disputed political boundary that cuts right through their traditional lands, thereby affecting their ability to migrate as they have for centuries.

The appearance of boundaries on popular maps is as important as their careful legal definition. As boundaries and territories often involve sensitive international issues, so a map must represent the areas clearly and without bias. Cartography therefore plays an important role in the interpretation of boundaries and boundary issues between countries. On more than one occasion a country has been offended by an incorrectly rendered map and has responded with armed force. The numerous conflicts between Greece and Turkey over small border islands in the Aegean Sea serve as a good example. 

The seemingly simple act of a cartographer labeling an island as Turkish instead of Greek has been enough to mobilize armed forces on both sides as each country asserts its sovereignty over the island. If each country maps certain territories as its own, then the act of mapping may become a diplomatic offence causing an escalation of tension and eventual military conflict. Showing a disputed boundary or area in a fair manner can be difficult when each party wants their mutual boundary or the disputed area to be shown in their favor.

Boundary Demarcation
The process of locating and marking a boundary between two or more nations can be technically complex and legally contentious. The earliest boundaries were often physiographic features of the landscape, such as rivers, hills, mountain crests, or edges of forests—features that were easy to identify by parties on both sides of the boundary.

As empires became more organized and engineering skills improved, so walls became a popular form of boundary demarcation as well as physical protection. Sometimes the wall consisted only of a ring of stone surrounding a major city, but more ambitious projects were also undertaken. Hadrian’s Wall was built by the Roman Empire to mark the northernmost limit of Roman influence in England, and the famous Great Wall was built as a protective barrier against the Mongol tribes to the north.

The later emergence of a complex political landscape required more precise boundaries. Governments commissioned survey teams, usually from the military, to determine the position of borders. Sometimes this proved to be quite difficult when boundaries ran through dense tropical forest or across an empty desert. Even today such remote areas may lack an accurate boundary survey—the boundary is indefinite. When the surveyors locate a significant geographic point, called a turning point, they record the exact latitude and longitude and place a marker made of concrete or stone, called a monument, at that location. Once the survey is complete, a list of the exact turning points—that is, the location of the monuments—is handed over to the government authorities as an accurate record of the boundary’s location.

The act of boundary surveying can lead to suspicion and distrust between the countries involved, and typically engineers from both countries, sometimes with aid from the UN or an impartial country, conduct the survey. 

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Distrust often increases when dealing with hard-to-survey areas or when surveyors use temporary monuments. Some boundaries are indicated simply with trenches, some with wooden poles, others with barbed-wire fences. 

Occasionally engineers delineate boundaries with just an area cleared of vegetation, such as those along the border between the United States and Canada, the longest undefended border in the world. Advanced tools such as Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) devices and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) make boundaries easier to locate, mark, and track, thereby reducing the possibility of disputes.


A boundary dispute arises when one country claims land in an adjacent country because of some quality that the land possesses. That quality could include an important historic or cultural shrine, a strategic position, or economic resources, such an oil field or a deepwater port. A dispute may not arise until an actual diplomatic or military conflict occurs, but even an informal claim by one country may cause tension.

What exactly does it mean when experts use the word disputed in describing a boundary or area? The International Court of Justice (ICJ) acts as the judicial arm of the UN and provides advisory opinions to countries involved in an official dispute. The ICJ recognizes a dispute as a disagreement on fact, or a conflict of legal claims or interests between two parties. Simply stated, a dispute exists when two countries hold clearly opposite opinions concerning the status of a boundary or ownership of an area. Countries can make any claims concerning the ownership of territories outside their boundary, but such claims need to be proven before the ICJ. This is often a difficult task because such proof requires detailed historical research and access to maps and documents that may be rare or non-existent.

Types of Disputes

There are four main types of boundary dispute: positional disputes, territorial disputes, resource disputes, and cultural disputes.

In positional disputes the location of the boundary is in question. A country may disagree with a boundary because of an inaccurate survey, outdated records, or because of other reasons. The current boundary dispute in the Cordillera del Condor region on the border between Ecuador and Peru is a good example of this type of conflict. Geographic features such as rivers and mountain ranges are frequently used as natural boundaries because their position is fixed, yet over time such features change because of natural geophysical processes. When the natural boundary changes, a dispute may arise over the new boundary’s location. Portions of the Congo River forming the border between the nations of the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) are disputed because of shifting islands and streams within the broad river.

A territorial dispute occurs when a country claims an area existing in some other country’s territory or when the border is under dispute. This type of dispute often exists for historical or cultural reasons. Certain cultural groups may have occupied an area for a long time and base their claim on this occupation, regardless of which country currently claims the region. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the Bakasi Peninsula dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon are good examples.

As world populations continue to rise, the need for basic resources such as food, water, and oil become critical to a nation’s survival. In addition to basing a territorial claim upon proximity or historical occupation, countries may make claims to even the smallest of islands in order to gain vital resources. Resource disputes have become more common in recent times. A country’s claim to an area that may contain rich petroleum reserves or that may serve as a vital strategic defensive position may become a matter of national survival. Minor changes to a boundary or the acquisition of otherwise insignificant islands could yield many economic benefits under international law, such as an exclusive income-producing economic zone (EEZ) in international waters. One example of this type of dispute is Rockall Island in the North Atlantic Ocean—this tiny island is claimed by the United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark, and Iceland. Another dispute is over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, which are claimed by no fewer than six nations.

Cultural differences, although not easily delineated by boundaries, are often the most compelling sources of disputes for the people involved. Sometimes culturally distinct groups choose to exclude other distinct groups from their own territory, using force if necessary to create the separation. What makes the groups culturally distinct can be a number of factors, but generally they are ethnic background, religious affiliation, political beliefs, and language. Disputes based on these factors are often the hardest to resolve because of personal and national values.

Many of the current disputes around the world involve some aspect of local culture, particularly religious and political differences. For example, the disputes in and around Jerusalem are based on the centuries-old occupation of religious sites by people of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths. The continuing conflict in Northern Ireland is a struggle between Roman Catholics and Unionists, who tend to be Protestants. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s ongoing problems have been the chief cause of a clash between Christians and Muslims, and numerous conflicts in Asia have occurred between Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims.

A dispute may involve more than one of the four types above, and often all four, such as the ongoing dispute in the Jammu and Kashmīr region of southern Asia. Also, boundary disputes do not always have to occur between sovereign nations. They often occur within a country when an administrative or internal division such as a state or province, or some culturally distinct group, seeks independence from its controlling country. The recent war in Chechnya within Russia is a case in point—here a predominately Islamic state desires political and cultural autonomy from the mother country. The ongoing war in northern Sri Lanka between the Tamil ethnic group and the government is another notable example. The Tamils are struggling to recover their autonomy both in the Tamil Nadu state on mainland India and on the island of Sri Lanka. If a diplomatic solution is not eventually reached, these contested internal boundaries might become the borders of new countries. This is what happened in the Balkan War (1992–1995) when Yugoslavia broke up into the new nations of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Disputes are often much more complex than they seem on the surface. Preventing conflict involves lengthy legal proceedings and intense research, often in a tense diplomatic atmosphere. Cartographers naturally find it difficult to keep up with the ongoing changes to the political landscape, but they strive to create the most accurate maps possible by maintaining communication with international agencies as well as individual countries.

Demarcation of Disputed Areas

Most maps and atlas use a special grey shading on the political map style to indicate territories that are currently considered disputed based on the ICJ definition. Likewise, boundaries that are in question are represented by dashed lines to clearly indicate that they do not fit the above definition for a peaceful international boundary.
Boundaries, Technology, and Peace
Boundaries are an integral part of our political and cultural world. They are self-imposed limits on the extent of political influence, even though they often follow natural features such as mountains or rivers. The disputes over boundaries are likewise a real part of our geography, frequently causing—and being caused by—political, military, cultural, ethnic, and religious conflict. boundaries6.gif (219101 bytes)
Global communications and the information technology revolution have also encouraged fairness and cooperation in settling disputes. When a dispute erupts, the news media are often quick to cover the story and suddenly a small issue between two countries becomes a global affair. That same news coverage often causes the countries involved to rethink their actions and act more prudently. 

Advanced information technology can play a direct role in boundary delimitation. This happened in late 1995 when the Dayton Line, the new peace boundary within Bosnia and Herzegovina, was demarcated by negotiators and the opposing leaders using the latest satellite imagery and terrain-modelling computer graphics. Diplomats from both sides of the Bosnian conflict sat down with peacemakers and computer-mapping technicians at computer terminals. The participants viewed the terrain model as if they were flying over it in an aircraft. They laid down the new boundary step by step, discussing points of contention as they went along, until the entire boundary was established.

Countries are more aware today of peaceful avenues to resolving their disputes, such as the ICJ. But the constant pressures of population, resources, and political and cultural differences will continue to play an important role in shaping the boundaries of the countries we live in, and in turn, the political map we view.