Tag Archives: territorial integrity

The Limits of Sovereignty and Territorial Integrity

Salva Kiir, the president of autonomous government of Southern Sudan, on Sunday moved toward full independence for the region. Southern Sudan has been an autonomous region within Sudan since 2005, when a peace treaty was signed between the government in Khartoum and rebels led by Kiir and others. Prior to the singing of the treaty, the oil-rich region had seen decades of civil war.

At a special church service to pray for peace, Kiir said that anything less than full independence for Southern Sudan would leave southerners “second class citizens” in their own land. In the speech, Kiir said,

When you reach your ballot boxes the choice is yours. You want to vote for unity, so that you become a second-class (citizen) in your own country, that is your choice…You would want to vote for independence, so that you are a free person, in your independent state, that will be your own choice. And we will respect the choice of the people.

Kiir’s comments follow a story released on the Government of Southern Sudan Mission to the United States’ website which described the current situation as “too deformed to be reformed.” Kiir’s comments (and broader statements issued by the government) are likely to increase tensions between the central government in Khartoum, which would like to see Southern Sudan remain part of the country, and those pushing for full independence.

The question of regional autonomy is always a difficult one in international politics. National governments have long hesitated to undermine their territorial integrity [glossary]—witness statements issued regarding Basque separatists in Spain, Flemish in Belgium, Tibet in China, the Hmong in Laos, the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta in Nigeria, and the Kurds in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. More than one-third of the states in Africa face at least one group pushing for autonomy or independence, reflecting the artificiality of the historical borders on the continent. In each of these cases, the national government resists—often with force—efforts to establish autonomous regions or independent states by the separatist movement. In some cases, the push for autonomy or independence results from differences in cultural, ethnic, or national identity. In others, such as the current situation in Southern Sudan, identity politics becomes tied up in resource conflicts, making resolution of the crisis more difficult. And where the strength of the government is already challenged, the stakes in the standoff between the national government and the independence movement are even greater.

How do we “Recognize” a State?

The South Ossetia crisis continues.  Yesterday, the Russian government announced yesterday that it would recognize the two (former?) Georgian regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  Nato’s Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, condemned Russia’s move, saying it was a “direct violation of numerous UN Security Council resolutions regarding Georgia’s territorial integrity” and cautioning Russia that “Nato firmly supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia and calls on Russia to respect these principles.”
South Ossetia and Abkhazia have long demanded independence from Georgia.  But Russia’ recognition of the two has some important implications.  The 1933 Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States outlines the four fundamental criteria for statehood. According to the treaty,

The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications:
(a) a permanent population;
(b) a defined territory;
(c) government; and
(d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.

The requirement that a state have the “capacity to enter into relations with other states” has usually been interpreted as meaning a state is recognized by other states.  Unilateral recognition is not usually sufficient.  Thus, Russia’s recognition of the two regions as independent states does not necessarily make them states.  And the hesitation of other countries to follow suit suggests that further movement towards statehood may not be forthcoming.  Recognition by the United Nations has usually been used as shorthand for meeting this criterion. But some states may choose not to participate as members of the United Nations (e.g., Switzerland), while others may be excluded for political reasons (e.g., Taiwan). 

Deciding whether a state is a state or not can be surprisingly difficult.  Some states fail to meet all of the criteria, particularly if we also carry over Weber’s definition that a state “possess a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force.”  By that definition, countries like Iraq Afghanistan, and Somalia would also not qualify, despite their membership in the United Nations.

Given this difficulty, it is also difficult to get an exact count on the number of states in the world.  There are currently 192 members of the United Nations.  The United States, however, recognizes 194 (including the Vatican and Kosovo, which are not recognized by the United Nations).  Taiwan may also be added to the list.  Palestine aspires to statehood, and the Palestinian government is recognized by many countries, but is not included in the total.