Defining Unrecognized Countries: Part 1

By: Šárka Humlová

The vast majority of states in the international system can be said to exist both de jure and de facto (meaning that they exist both in law and reality) however, there are also numerous instances in which political entities are missing one of these characteristics.

Unrecognized countries represent one type of such entities, since they are not recognized as states in the international system and hence, they lack effective de jure (legal) independence, but at the same time they try to look and operate like states (Relitz 2019).

Their sheer existence therefore challenges the traditional views of statehood and sovereignty, which leads academics to treat them either as an anomaly (Caspersen 2009) or as a specific type of statehood (Dembinska and Campana 2017).

Unrecognized Countries often (although not exclusively) originate in unilateral secession (Geldenhuys 2009), which leads to their frequent portrayal as illegitimate places that are a threat to international stability (Kolstø 2006; Relitz 2019).

With the acknowledgment that unrecognized countries “present an existential paradox in their simultaneously transgressive and mimetic qualities: they both challenge the international order by violating de jure borders, and replicate it by seeking to exhibit the normal appearance of a state” (Broers 2013: 59); the academic interest in these entities has been considerably expanded.

Although the new interest was able to deepen our understanding of both the external and internal dynamics of contested states, Pegg (2017: 3) notes that the subfield “has failed to generate cumulative progress across some important areas”, one of which is the used terminology.

Considering that the academic literature on unrecognized countries is rather limited in comparison to other topics within IR, the terminology used to refer to them is rather extensive.

Before a more nuanced definition of the unrecognized countries themselves can be offered, it is necessary to first address the numerous terms associated with these political entities.

The terminology of unrecognized countries includes terms such as; ‘unrecognized states’ and 'contested states' (King 2001; Caspersen 2012; Shelest 2013), ‘pseudo-states’ (Kolossov and O'Loughlin 1998), ‘unrecognized quasi states’ (Kolstø 2006), ‘de facto states’ (Protsyk 2012; Kolstø and Blakkisrud 2012; Voller 2013; Yemelianova 2015; Pacher 2017; Berg and Vits 2018; De Waal 2018; Relitz 2019), and ‘contested states’ (Geldenhuys 2009; Papadimitriou and Petrov 2012; Ker-Lindsay 2012; Bouris and Kyris 2017; Bouris and Fernández-Molina 2018; Kyris 2018).

Despite such a large variety of terms, the debate on the ‘right’ terminology has not been settled, which has led to further proliferation of new terminology (Pegg 2017: 19).

In some cases the flaws of the terminology are quite easy to determine, for instance Kolstø (2006) points out that the term ‘pseudo-states’ come from the Greek word pseudos, which means ‘a lie’, therefore the term seems to imply a negative value judgment as to the states’ authenticity.

However, as Caspersen (2012) shows there are also a number of fully recognized states that do not fit neatly into the classical view of sovereignty (e.g. Bosnia due to the powers of the High Representative or the Order of Malta as it does not control any territory) since they do not meet many of the criteria for statehood yet they are not associated with similarly negative labels.

Finally, McConnell (2009: 345) draws attention to the fact that the frequent labelling of these entities in negative terms leads the academics to focus on the unfavourable attributes of these states rather than what they have managed to achieve through their diplomatic agency and institution building.

This critique is especially relevant with regards to the term of ‘unrecognized states’ as it tends to imply that recognition only exists in binary terms, where a state is either fully recognized or completely unrecognized (McConnell 2017: 145).

Although the limited (or lack of) international recognition is a key characteristic of these entities, Geldenhuys (2009: 26) claims that none of these entities are completely unrecognised.

Even in the most extreme cases some de facto recognition has been granted to these entities, in fact a large portion of contested states have achieved at least partial international recognition, some even achieving international recognition from a significant portion of the member states of the UN.

The term ‘unrecognized states’ obscures this spectrum of recognition among these entities, which constrains the analysis of the varying international recognition itself.

These are among the few reasons why Kolstø (2006) has advocated for the use of the term ‘unrecognized quasi-states’ as opposed to the previously examined terminology.

He outlined this view in his critique of Jackson’s (1993) use of the term ‘quasi-states’ with regard to states that possess only external sovereignty – they are fully recognized but “fail to develop the necessary state structures” (Kolstø 2006: 723).

He argues that these entities should instead be labelled ‘failed states’ as is the case in most of the academic literature.

At the same time, claiming that instead it should be entities that lack international recognition that should be labelled ‘unrecognised quasi-states’, since it accurately represents their location at the “margins of the international system” (Kolstø 2006: 725) while emphasising their potential rather than making an unnecessary value judgment or focusing on what these entities are not.

Nonetheless, similarly to the previously discussed terminology, the term ‘unrecognized quasi- states’ has not caught on within the academic literature and hence along with the other terms it has been abandoned by their authors in favour of the label ‘de facto states’, or 'unrecognized countries,' which currently represents the most commonly used term.

This is despite the argument put forward by Donnacha Ó Beacháin and his colleagues that the use of the term ‘de facto states’ is inadequate, when considering that all states, recognized or not, exist de facto (Ó Beacháin et al. 2016: 442).

Moreover, Geldenhuys (2009: 26) argues that the term is “problematic because it suggests that these entities are denied de jure recognition, receiving de facto recognition only”, which in reality does not necessarily hold true.

Still, numerous scholars justify their use of this terminology based on it being “the least inaccurate and least offensive” (Broers 2013: 71) as well as “most appropriate and most neutral” (O'Loughlin et al. 2014: 2), others have decided to use the term in part due to its widespread use within the literature (Kolstø and Blakkisrud 2012; Caspersen 2016; Pegg 2017).

In spite of the popularity of the term ‘de facto states’ and some of its inherent advantages (at least when compared to the other previously analysed terms), so far it has been unsuccessful in convincing numerous academics of its merits and so new alternatives are still being proposed.

One of such alternatives that has gained significant traction within the field is ‘contested states’, which emphasises their defining feature - “the internationally disputed nature of their purported statehood, manifested in their lack of de jure recognition” (Geldenhuys 2009: 7). It is the preferred term of Ker-Lindsay, because it can “[capture] an important ambiguity in the nature of these entities.

The contestation can refer to their status on the international stage or to whether they are states at all” (Ker‐Lindsay 2015: 268). This essentially means, that it captures the internal as well as external sources of contestation, which is extremely relevant for this thesis.

Even though some might claim that since the contestation comes from an outside perception of controversy, it over emphasizes the external view of these entities however, since this thesis is focusing on how the internal policies of these entities influence international recognition, which is based on how others perceive the political entities, it seems appropriate to emphasise the contested nature of these entities.

Finally, the debate regarding the right terminology goes beyond the discussion of the modifier that precedes the word ‘state’, but also includes discussion about the use of the word ‘state’ itself.

Whereas, the vast majority of academics make use of the term ‘state’ since the entities “satisfy the basic, formal requirements of statehood in international law save for recognition, they aspire to confirmed statehood, and they in many ways act like typical states” (Geldenhuys 2009: 26).

Other scholars such as Yemelianova (2015: 221), reject the use of the term ‘state’, arguing that according to international law under the constitutive theory of recognition, where recognition itself is regarded to be an essential condition of sovereignty, an entity lacking international recognition could not be considered a ‘state’.

This is the same line of argumentation that Crawford (2007) used to claim that no such a thing as a de facto state exists and while it has been used by Ker-Lindsay (2015: 268) to support his use of the term ‘contested states’ rather than ‘de facto states’; Crawford’s objection could be used in the same manner regarding the label ‘contested states’ as his objection is related to the use of the word ‘state’ rather than what precedes it (Pegg 2017: 21).

From the point of constitutive theory, this critique of the terminology is persuasive, yet only a minority of scholars have decided to follow this line of reasoning and decided to call these entities by a variety of different terms including secessionists, liberation movements, anti- colonialists, terrorists, and indigenous peoples.

Nonetheless, since a large portion of this thesis is dedicated to how internal sovereignty and state-building practices are used by the entities to gain international recognition; and the vast majority of scholars have also worked with the term ‘state’ and 'country', the complete rejection of the word ‘state’ or 'country,' does not seem appropriate.


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