Unrecognized Countries: An In-Depth Analysis

Updated: Sep 17, 2019

By: Siu Chung Tang

What are Unrecognized Countries?

In 1945, the United Charter was officially signed by representatives from 50 nations. The United Nations (UN) officially came into existence on October 24th, 1945. Since its inception, the UN has continued to expand and increase their number of member states over the past 70 years.

According to the UN, there are currently 193 recognized states today. Apart from states with full membership, the Holy See and the State of Palestine act as the observers in the session and the work of the General Assembly and maintain permanent observer status.

There are four main steps to start a new country and acquire full UN membership (Strauss, 1999).

Firstly, a nation must declare its intention to be independent. Secondly, a new country needs to seek recognition by existing states in the international community and make an application to join the UN - which holds enormous weight for a new country hoping to be recognised by the international community.

Thirdly, an application must be approved by at least 9 of the 15 members of the Security Council. If any of the permanent members including: China, France, The Russian Federation, The United Kingdom or United State reject the country, the application is terminated.

Once the above has been achieved, all 193 UN members states will vote in the General Assembly to decide whether the application is successful or not. Most applications have been terminated because of different kinds of political issues or objections from various states.

An unrecognized country essentially becomes a place that doesn't exist in international relations and is excluded from international law even though they act like state entities (Caspersen et al., 2011).

Unrecognized countries also present specific political problems to neighbouring countries or for other countries with national interests in the region (Pegg, 2019). The issue of unrecognized countries has stood out in international relations because of their status of de facto independence and the need of engagement with them (Ker-Lindsay & Berg, 2018).

As unrecognized countries are not formal entities according to international law, they are prohibited from borrowing loans from the World Bank and unable to gain related support from organizations such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations (Kudamatsu, 2019). 

Before 1990, there was primarily only one unrecognized country, “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (TRNC) (Caspersen, 2013). However, after the Cold War, the emergence of breakaway territories across the former Soviet Union and decolonization by western countries created a multitude of de facto countries, the latter primarily in Africa (Pegg, 1998).

These unrecognized countries have become noticeable within the field of international relations in recent years because of their number and impact on international society (Caspersen, 2012).

The problems of unrecognized or partly recognized states have become more important than ever. However, people still have limited understanding of what they are and why they matter.

Therefore, this article will explore what unrecognized countries are and the impact that these entities have within the international system.

Challenges of Unrecognized Countries

The concept of unrecognized countries is ambiguous, and their anomalous features make them hard to be understood. Unrecognized countries are unique because they are trying to squeeze themselves into the existent sovereignty and the international system.

Unrecognized countries have their origins in self-determination conflicts and are denied recognition because they are seen to violate the principle of territorial integrity (Mann, 1987). Scholars have developed different terminology to characterise and explain the nature of unrecognized countries, however, it has also brought added confusion to the subject because of its increasing complexity (Turmanidze, 2010).

De Facto States

In order to clear up this confusion, Pegg (1998) defined the existence of “de facto states” where there is an organised political leadership which has risen to power through some degree of indigenous capability; receives popular support; and has achieved sufficient capacity to provide governmental services to a given population in a specific territorial area, over which effective control is maintained for a significant period of time.

The de facto views itself as capable of entering into relations with other states and it seeks full constitutional independence and widespread international recognition as a sovereign state.

It is, however, unable to achieve any degree of substantive recognition and therefore remains illegitimate in the eyes of international society”. The term de facto state or unrecognized country has also been widely used because of its objective character and description.

Pseudo State

In the same year, Kolossov and O’Loughlin (1998) suggested a different terminology - pseudo states, for describing unrecognized countries. The term 'pseudo state' has aroused academic interest because these entities have many of the formal trappings of sovereignty, however, has no real or de facto independence. This is essentially states without control over their claimed territory.

Unrecognized Countries

King (2001) uses the term ‘unrecognized states’ to describe territories located in Eurasia, which have the basic structures of governance, a working economy, elections for political offices, a military force and further symbols of sovereignty.

Quasi States

Kolstø (2006) suggested that a recognized but ineffectual state should be referred as ‘failed states’, while the term ‘quasi states’ ought to be reserved for unrecognized, de facto states.

Kolstø provided a clear differentiation between individual characteristics of failed states and quasi states. Failed states can no longer provide basic services to its inhabitants such as security, while unrecognized states are able to provide these basic needs to its population, yet remains unrecognized by the international community.

Cost of Being an Unrecognized Country

Even though there are various definitions and types of unrecognized countries, lacking recognition as a country can still have the same economic impacts on all of them.

The failure to be recognized as a sovereign state by the international community may adversely affect the economic development for at least two reasons (Kolsto,2006).

First, there is a lack of foreign direct investment in unrecognized countries because of its uncertainty and the investment may not be protected by international law.

Second, unrecognized countries may spend a large portion of its gross domestic product on military expenditure rather than investing in public goods. This is because of the perceived threat that the 'parent state' is able to invade at any time.

In addition, the ability of unrecognized countries to join international organizations of any kind is extremely limited and therefore remains a place unseen on world maps.

Impact of Unrecognized Countries in Global Politics

Apart from the impact to unrecognized countries themselves, they also impact substantially on international politics in two main areas: conflict and the political economy (Link & Hatzenbuehler, 2016).

The impact of unrecognized countries has been the most apparent in the area of conflict and war (Lynch, 2004). Jackson and Rosberg (1982) argues that international bodies, foreign powers, and even private firms are likely to respect sovereign governments’ de jure claim to the resource-rich regions that they have lost control.

The businesses run by these foreign powers, private firms or international bodies can negatively impact international society in several ways. Such groups are unlikely to be the best protectors of the environment and respect trade regulations and this may encourage illegal activities (Yeats, 1991).

Secondly, the respective sovereign governments will lose millions of dollars of lucrative revenues – often from non-renewable resources due to those resources being targeted by such groups (Jackson, 1993).

Finally, this loss of revenue indirectly leads to increased demands on other members of international society for greater assistance and therefore forms a negative cycle that makes unrecognized countries suffer from a continuously poor economy (Fleming et al., 2000).

How Does the International Community Engage with Unrecognized Countries?

Unrecognized countries, by their very nature, stand outside the established international system. However, this was not always the case.

The International community was willing to accept territories that had managed to prove their objective existence as independent and sovereign states (Laurance et al., 2014).

However, over the past few decated, rather than accepting territories by rating the structures of independent statehood, the international community has almost uniformly condemned such actions (Ker-Lindsay, 2015).

The international community has generally taken the approach of 'disengagement' when dealing with any form of unilateral declaration of independence.

In addition, there is a deep reluctance by the parent state and other external parties to interact with breakaway territories because of the fear of legitimisation (De Waal, 2007).

Western nations have been fearful of accepting these territories by interacting with them extensively (Martin, 2007). However, the isolated territories may instead become increasingly dependent on an external relation and reduce the interaction with parent states due to the feeling of unfairness when they try to reach a settlement (Berg & Pegg, 2016).

Future Recognition?

The topic of Unrecognized countries is an important one within the international community over the last few decades.

The complex situation of unrecognized countries impacts the international community in various ways and are often used as leverage in international relations.

As mentioned above, there is now a growing and vibrant community of scholars working on unrecognized countries due to its impact and the increasing number of them.

There are many words to describe unrecognized countries, however, every definition represents different schools of thought and characteristics of unrecognized countries.

It is also important to development a different framework to engage with these unrecognized countries. Recently, the concept of ‘engagement without recognition’ has attracted the attention from scholars and practitioners.

Can this be seen as an alternative to the punitive measures the international community has taken when engaging with unrecognized countries?


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