What Does It Mean to Annex Something?

You’ve probably heard the word “annex” thrown around either at dinner table conversations or just kind of generally used to describe things that have happened politically in the last maybe 10 years or so. You might have just originally thought “annex” just refers to like… an addition to a document, or that little extra mini-house people who have houses have. Then you remember you’re probably never going to be able to afford a house because just living in a place is too expensive and the existential dread sets in so you stop thinking about the word “annex” and go back to getting the good brain chemicals with fun internet facts or something. If you’re still with us though, what does it mean to annex something?

Where Did the Word Come From?

The word “annex” likely came around the late 14th century, from an Old French word meaning “to attach.” That should… give you a pretty decent idea of what the word “annex” means in terms of international law. This Old French word comes from the Latin annexare, which has a bit more of a negative connotation. It comes back around to something more along the lines of “to bind,” and is normally used when the thing that got bound is a new subordinate of the thing doing the binding. That should also give you a better idea of what annexing means when people are throwing it around at the dinner table.

International Law Time

Annexation, in accordance with international law, is generally held to be a big no-no. That’s why when countries annex places, they generally don’t like to say that they did so (recent examples include Israel and Russia). Anyway, while international law is difficult to enforce, the UN does hold that annexation is illegal—for whatever that’s worth. 

Sometimes annexation is made legitimate when other state bodies recognize the annexation, or they just ignore it and sort of legitimize it indirectly like that time Russia annexed Crimea. Sometimes, annexation ends up becoming legalized, like when China annexed Tibet.

But what happens when a state annexes the territory of another state? By definition, annexation is simply when another state uses force to acquire the territory of another state. Because most countries aren’t just going to willingly allow their territory to be taken, annexation is normally accompanied by military occupation (or at least an attempt to occupy). You might be wondering, then, what’s the difference between annexation, conquest, and cessation?

Cessation is pretty easy to separate out, so we’ll just do that first. The cessation of territory can come with military force, but by definition it’s just when a nation gives up territory to another by some kind of mutual agreement. How mutual of an agreement that is when one is pointing big guns at the other is up for you to decide, but such is the way of warfare. 

Annexation and Conquest

So annexation and conquest are considered distinct. That might feel a little weird after we described how annexation can come with the military occupation of another territory. Scholars have kind of debated the obsolescence of the term “conquest,” since the “right of conquest” is one that’s no longer really recognized. That idea was basically “if you can storm in and just take the place you might as well have it.” The international community largely frowns upon that now.

Anyway, conquest is considered to be something that follows annexation, as conquest follows war and the subjugation of the losing party

Annexation is by nature unilateral, that is to say only one party has a say in the process. Makes sense, it’s not like the one getting annexed would particularly appreciate or want it. Annexation begins when the annexing part simply declares the annexed territory theirs. Occupation typically follows because you kind of have to walk the walk if you’re going to talk the talk. Anyway, this is a long way of saying annexing something is just the international politics equivalent of calling dibs on something someone else owns. 


Speaking of annexing and borders, see if you know your border evolution here.

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