There are many more countries in the world than the two to three hundred generally recognised. There are countries which are only recognised by a few others, and thus do not have seats at the UN: Northern Cyprus, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Tibet etcetera. There are others which have claimed independence, and have some sort of government structure, but are not recognised by anyone. These include Cabinda, Forvik and the Kingdom of Trinidad, not the West Indian island but a rock once disputed between the UK and Brazil.
Then there are the now defunct states, such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Kingdom of Poland, which are still proclaimed as existing by some of their former citizens, particularly when they want to avoid conscription or keep their lights on during a blackout. There are also several hundred micronations, usually dismissed as jokes, which range from serious de facto and de jure entities such as the Principality of Hutt River (usually regarded as part of Australia) to vanity exercises like Choconia, the nation of chocolate lovers, and Slobovia, the nation of slobs.
Each of these different levels of state is treated differently by the international community. This would appear to be the obvious course of action to take. But is it in fact causing more trouble than it is worth in some of the most sensitive areas of the world?
Whether a political entity should be regarded as a state or not is governed by the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, which dates from 1933. The principles of this have been adopted by the EU and other international bodies and they define what a state is in international law.
According to this convention, for an entity to be a state it must have all of the following four characteristics: a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. If it does, it is a state whether or not other states recognise it. The convention does prohibit the use of force to acquire statehood or sovereignty, and also distinguishes between sovereign and puppet states, but the law is clear: if you have the four characteristics, act independently and say you are a state, you are entitled to be treated as such.
Therefore international bodies like the UN, EU, and the Non-aligned Movement etcetera are not collections of countries but countries which choose to recognise each other. Many members of these forums do not have all four characteristics; others outside them do, and know it. Very often, it is this deviation from international law which is the root cause of most of the conflicts we read about in the news every day, and many more which are waiting to happen.
Pakistan, for example, is recognised as a state even by its enemies. But like many other states on the map, whether it has a defined territory is open to question. It all depends who is drawing the map. Pakistan was carved out of British India but none of the land which now makes up Pakistan actually belonged to the British. It had been leased to the United Kingdom by Afghanistan, not given into ownership or conquered. It wasn’t the UK’s to give away, and Afghanistan didn’t give it to anyone. So does Pakistan have any legal territory, or any right to be there?
Similarly, whether a defined territory actually belongs to a country is more than a matter of where its borders are. If the government doesn’t control part of its territory that portion is not part of the country’s defined territory because it is not run by its government, which it has to be to have the third characteristic a state must possess.
In some countries, such as Georgia and Azerbaijan, certain parts are either de facto independent or occupied by neighbouring states. Pakistan has border disputes with India, primarily over Jammu and Kashmir, and certain parts of the country, such as the poppy growing regions, have never at any time been controlled by its government. Does it have a defined territory?
The question of whether a state has a government can also be problematic. When the notorious warlord Khun Sa controlled the world’s largest narcotics production and distribution operation he did so from the Shan States in Burma. These housed a local separatist movement, which claimed the Shan had been promised independence from Burma in 1948 but not given it.
According to some observers, Khun Sa did not like the drug trade and was simply using it to try and force the independence of the Shan, though he had fought for Burma against the Shan previously. Undoubtedly however it was Khun Sa who ran the Shan, not the Burmese government. Similarly, Burma is still home to significant numbers of defeated Kuomintang fighters from China, and their descendants, who control a number of jungle provinces as a sort of mainland Taiwan. Their writ runs there, not Burma’s. So does the State of Burma which is on the map have a government?
Nor is this a Third World issue. During the Constitutional Crisis in Australia in 1972, and the more recent standoff between Obama and Congress in the US, the governments of these countries came perilously close to disappearing because the legislatures were blocking supply. If the government cannot pay the wages of government employees, they cannot work, there is no government.
Protracted political crisis can also leave countries without governments for significant periods. In 2010-11 Belgium did not have a government for 589 days, as negotiations to form a new coalition which would satisfy both ideology and the two main ethno-linguistic blocs in this federal state dragged on and on. The previous government remained in power in a caretaker role, meaning it could introduce no new policies or make significant decisions which would require ratification – could not govern, in fact. Was Belgium a state at this time?
This is not an abstract, how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin issue. The three examples given, Pakistan, Burma and Belgium, demonstrate the depth of the problem caused by ignoring international law on statehood.
Pakistan has seen frequent undemocratic changes of government, civil unrest, political assassinations and official involvement with terrorism, narcotics and nuclear weapons proliferation. Burma lives in a state of continual violence, division and criminality, which so overwhelmed it during the 1990s that it had to make the black market legal to replace its defunct economy.
Belgium faces an enduring threat of being split into separate Fleming and Walloon states. Disputes over incidents such as people speaking the wrong language in public places become serious political and social issues which are continually used by one side or another to disrupt the workings of parliament and government, no matter how much this is denied by those involved.
Why are these things happening? Just because there is such a thing as reality! When a state does not have the four characteristics it should have under the Montevideo Convention, non-state power groups within those countries feel they have just as much right to international support as the governments of these countries.
In many cases they are right, in strict legal terms. So when the government of the country they are supposed to belong to cannot govern them, what option are they being given to gain the support they need to govern themselves but to destabilise that country? What option are the countries they are in being given to avoid this?
Recognition as a state means everything in the real world. Without it you cannot enter into any of the agreements you need to survive: trade, military, humanitarian, transport and communications, aid etcetera. You are recognised as a state or you are not, there is no gradation of levels which reflects the complexities of the real situations states and territories find themselves in.
Recognising, or continuing to recognise, states which do not meet the Montevideo Convention requirements simply encourages others to do everything they can to obtain recognition, using any means and any argument. It makes conflict and instability inevitable, problems which can be used by any number of external actors for their benefit, at the expense of the countries and people involved. These actors then compete against each other by creating more problems elsewhere to exploit. So will things always be, as long as the present all-or-nothing approach is maintained.
Nor is the international community’s approach consistent in itself. The US was determined that Kosovo should be independent, within certain borders, as an Albanian-dominated state regardless of the views of the Serb population there, who boycotted the referendum on the subject and thus brought its validity into question, as the US boycott of the Moscow Olympics tried to do.
The recognition of Kosovo was a foregone conclusion, whereas Kurdistan, Khalistan (the Sikh homeland) and many other entities have longer distinct histories and greater internal support, but no chance of recognition unless the US suddenly likes them. The same applies to the Basque country, the Southern Tyrol (German-speaking Italy), Scotland and Wales (as independent nations) and various other parts of the EU which are not regarded as threatening.
We could also mention the example the US never likes to talk about, Israel being created, put where it is and recognised while Palestine was wiped off the map and its citizens made into second-class citizens of the Jewish State. Was there ever going to be any other outcome than ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, affecting many other countries and many natural resources, if one was recognised and the other condemned to history regardless of their status under the Montevideo Convention?
Arbitrarily withdrawing recognition from some states or granting it to others will not solve the problem of instability. But granting different levels of recognition, based on how many of the Montevideo Convention criteria they are adjudged to meet, would level the playing field and give everyone an opportunity to state their case. There will still be disagreements over individual cases but there will be room for everyone, without any judgment being made on sovereignty.
States at different levels of recognition will be able to enter into international agreements if they want to, and others want to conclude agreements with them. Yes, this situation will be exploited, but the more open such arrangements are the more chance there is of regulating them. At present unrecognised states are also unregulated states, and it is no coincidence that the international narcotics trade derives almost all its products from areas under the control of unrecognised entities or forces, not national governments.
Many countries will not like being removed from the top table because they don’t meet all four Convention criteria. But are they really there now? Of all the UN member states, how many have real influence? When was the last time the General Assembly hall was full when their leader spoke there, if he ever has? How many of them can do anything of any substance without the agreement of the big power they are most friendly with? With several playing fields rather than one, everyone can play the game, and without having to kill and plunder their way there.
Of course the term “state” is not only used to describe a sovereign country. Some of them have subdivisions also called “states”. Many of these obtained this status gradually, in stages, by progressively meeting criteria. The constituent states of the United States of America provide examples of this.
Once again we have to ask the question which lies behind all foreign policy issues anywhere: if it is good enough for Uncle Sam, why doesn’t it want the rest of the world to have the same?
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.