Over the past week, I had the honor of presenting at two different conferences on statehood and recognition issues: the first one was held at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel, and its official title was “Recognition in the Context of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” and the second one was held in Ankara, Turkey, and its focus was on “The Centennial of the Independence of the Three Caucasus States: Historical Background, Contemporary Developments and Prospects of Peace and Prosperity” (the conference was organized by the Center for Eurasian Studies, an independent think tank based in Ankara). My role at each of these conferences was to discuss statehood and recognition issues under International Law – in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the first conference, and in the context of the South Caucasus conflicts at the second conference (as most readers would know, there are ongoing separatist conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia). Although these conflicts present distinct factual issues, many legal issues pertain to all; this post will briefly discuss such common legal issues in an attempt to shed light on complex issues of statehood and recognition.
Statehood and recognition are supposed to be distinct from one another. The former is a legal theory enshrined in international treaty law: the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States establishes four criteria of statehood, which include the presence of a defined territory, permanent population, government, and the capacity to enter into international relations. The latter is a political act traditionally left to the sovereignty of already-existing states. International law scholars have described two different theories of recognition of states: the declaratory view and the constitutive view. Under the former, recognition is seen as a purely political act having no bearing on the legal elements of statehood. Under this view, outside states can choose to recognize the new state, or not, but that decision does not influence the legal determination of statehood. Under the latter, recognition is seen as one of the main elements of statehood. Thus, an entity cannot achieve statehood unless it is recognized by outside actors as a state. Under the constitutive view, recognition and statehood go hand-in-hand: an entity vying for statehood must garner the support of other existing states, which must express their desire to formally recognize this entity as their sovereign sister state. In addition to the declaratory and constitutive views, scholars have advanced a third, intermediary view on recognition. The intermediary view seeks to combine the declaratory and constitutive views while acknowledging what truly takes place in practice. This view posits that recognition is a political act independent of statehood, but that outside states have a duty to recognize an aspiring state if that entity objectively satisfies the four criteria of statehood. Upon a closer examination of statehood and recognition, it thus seems evident that the two are related on a theoretical level. The fourth criterion of the Montevideo Convention establishes the capacity to enter into international relations as one of the fundamental criteria of statehood; an aspiring state cannot possibly enter into international relations unless existing states are willing to recognize the aspiring state as a sovereign partner. In addition, unless one supports the declaratory view on recognition, it appears that recognition is one of the elements of statehood (under both the intermediary and constitutive views). And, in practice, recognition and statehood are closely connected. Most aspiring states must garner the support of a sufficient number of existing states, and in reality, the support of most of the Great Powers, in order to be recognized as new sovereign states. Without such recognition, aspiring states remain that – entities aspiring to achieve the supreme status of statehood. To the contrary, recognition and support by the Great Power may elevate an aspiring state to the status of statehood, although such an aspiring state may not satisfy the legal requirements of statehood.
Several historical examples support this argument. When Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) decided to separate from Great Britain and to form an independent state in 1965, most of the world, including the Great Powers, refused to recognize Southern Rhodesia as a state. Consequently, Southern Rhodesia remained isolated from the world and was unable to conduct international relations. The non-recognition of Southern Rhodesia by outside actors prevented it from fully exercising the attributes of legal statehood. In the context of the former Yugoslavia, European Great Powers as well as the United States decided to prematurely recognize Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, although such recognition was granted at a time when the entities in question arguably did not exercise control over their territories or have effective governments, thereby not meeting the traditional requirement for statehood. Moreover, the United States refused to recognize the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) until 1978, although the PRC satisfied the legal criteria of statehood. Turkey was isolated in its own recognition of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus as a state, although this entity did not necessarily fulfill all the legal elements of statehood. Finally, whereas many Western Great Powers have recognized Kosovo, Russia has refused to entertain any possibility of recognizing Kosovo as a state, although Kosovo’s fulfillment of the legal criteria of statehood is at the very least open to reasonable debate. Thus, recognition, whether it is considered a political or legal act, has a direct impact on the pragmatic determination of statehood: whether an entity will be able to truly act as a state on the international scene. It may be argued that important states, such as Great Powers, support the constitutive view, because they equate recognition with statehood. In other words, Great Powers, as well as other important states, may decide whether to treat an emerging entity as a state based on their own geo-political interests, and not based on whether the entity satisfies the legal criteria of statehood. Thus, Great Powers, as well as many other states, have demonstrated that in practice, recognition remains constitutive of statehood.
Another key ingredient in the process of state creation is United Nations’ membership. Because United Nations’ membership depends on the Security Council, it is thus subject to the geo-political whims of the five veto-wielding Great Powers (United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, and China). United Nations’ membership is important because it de facto elevates an aspiring state into a state. Conversely, the denial of United Nations’ membership prevents the attainment of full statehood by an aspiring entity. United Nations’ membership is distinct from the legal criteria of statehood (although such membership arguably enables the entertainment of international relations) and distinct from each existing state’s sovereign decision to recognize or not recognize a newly emerging entity. However, it may be argued that United Nations’ membership reflects the collective recognition practice of the five permanent members of the Security Council, and that, in order to become a state, any entity must garner the support of these Security Council members – because entering the United Nations signifies the international community’s approval of a new sovereign member.
How does all of the above apply to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to the South Caucasus? Although Palestine, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Abkahzia may or may not satisfy the four criteria of statehood, and although Palestine may be recognized by over a hundred existing states, each of these entities have been blocked from entering the United Nations because of Security Council veto – in the case of Palestine, the United States has vetoed the Palestinian application for full membership, and in the cases of Nagorno-Karabkah, South Ossetia and Abkahzia, it is likely that the United States would equally veto membership applications. Thus, none of these entities stand a chance of attaining statehood at the present moment. It may be argued that the Palestinian case for statehood is much stronger, because Palestine has observer status in the United Nations, because the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into Israel, at Palestine’s request, and because Palestine has been recognized by more than one hundred existing states. In addition, Palestine has recently sued the United States in the International Court of Justice under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations; it will be interesting to find out whether the Court takes up the case on the merits and proclaims anything regarding Palestinian statehood issues. However, because of the United States’ veto in the Security Council, Palestine does not have access to the United Nations and has no prospects of attaining the status of a sovereign state.
In sum, unless one supports the declaratory view, recognition and statehood remain connected on the theoretical level, and recognition and statehood are almost always inter-linked in practice. Although recognition and statehood are distinct processes, it is nearly impossible to analyze the recognition of new states without focusing on the legal theory of statehood. In addition to the link between recognition and statehood, recognition is always a political process, dominated by global politics and the interests of the Great Powers.