Transferable Sovereignty: Lessons from the History of the Congo Free State
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
In November, 1908, the international community tried to buy its way out of the century’s first recognized humanitarian crisis: King Leopold II’s exploitation and abuse of the Congo Free State. And while the oppression of Leopold’s reign is by now well-recognized, comparatively little attention has been paid to the mechanism that ended it—a purchased transfer of sovereign control. For the first and possibly only time in history, a sovereign was paid to relinquish control of an oppressed region. Existing accounts have explored Leopold’s exploitative acquisition and ownership of the Congo, and their implications for international law and practice. But it was also an economic transaction that brought the abuse to an end.
The forced sale of the Congo Free State is our starting point for asking whether there is, or should be, an exception to the absolutist conception of territorial integrity that dominates traditional international law. In particular, we ask whether oppressed regions should have a right to exit – albeit perhaps at a price – before the relationship between the sovereign and the region deteriorates to the level of genocide.