This Day in International Law: September 29

By Sarah Pike

September 29th, 1938, was the date of signing of the Munich Agreement. Germany, Italy, France, and the United Kingdom signed the agreement, allowing portions of Czechoslovakia to be annexed by Germany. The area under agreement was termed the Sudetenland, for the Sudeten Germans living there. The document was drafted entirely without Czech input. Feeling betrayed but essentially powerless, the Czech government accepted the agreement the next day.

The minority Sudeten Germans had indeed been pressing for autonomy, and had resultingly been guaranteed more rights by the Czech government. However, today this movement is partly seen as having been co-opted by Hitler–via his backing of the Sudeten German Party–to allow the Nazis to gain territory in Czechoslovakia without force. More broadly, the Munich agreement is now regarded as part of the failed appeasement of Hitler, and is even used as shorthand for the dangers of such a strategy.

Beyond the long shadow cast by the annexation of the Sudetenland and the path to World War II, practical elements of the agreement’s signing remain relevant today. First, how can we approach agreements that impact a nation’s interests when that nation is not at the bargaining table? What about the “law of nations,” articulated since Vattel’s seminal work, that each sovereign shall control its own territory and not be dictated to by another? Treaties were imagined as a protection against unilateral behavior, but can clearly be their tool. Can international bodies provide greater recourse today for protestation of unfair agreements? Or can powerful nations continue to enforce that “might makes right”?

Further, groups within nations have continued to consider autonomy, from separatism in Québec to the independence referendum in Catalonia. How should such requests for sovereignty best be handled, and protected from co-option? What reasons for independence are considered valid, especially for minority populations?

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