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LawOff Campus

The ghost states

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Have you ever wondered how many states exist in the world? To give an answer to this significant question it is important first to know which characteristics a state must have to be defined in this way. According to Article 1 of the 1933 Montevideo Convention, the state as a person of international law should possess 4 qualifications: permanent population, defined territory, government and capacity to enter into relations with the other states.

Nowadays, several territories argue publicly to be sovereign states even if they are recognized by none other or only by a few others. This is often the result of conflicts with the original country, which still claims to have control over the territory. In this case, there is a clear break between international de jure situation and de facto internal condition, with the local authorities fully exercising traditional sovereign prerogatives.

A good way to ensure that a state is formally recognized is examining if it is part of the United Nations, the biggest intergovernmental organization, which aims to maintain peace in the world. Nowadays, there are 193 members and 2 non-member observers: Vatican City and the State of Palestine. The latter is considered a de jure state despite being occupied by Israel since the Six-Day War in 1967 and is currently recognized by 137 states in the world. On the other hand, Israel, which belongs to UN, is not recognized by 31 members due to the high tension it creates in Arabic area.

Another relevant conflict is the one between People’s Republic of China, commonly known as China, and the Republic of China, commonly known as Taiwan. The split between the two happened in 1949 as a result of a civil war, which was in turn caused by a dispute on the political status of Taiwan, raised at the end of the World War II. Taiwan, former member of the UN until 1971, is currently recognized only by 14 members of the organization and by the Holy See as well. In September 2019 Kiribati and Solomon Islands switched to China after supporting its rival for long. In that occasion Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said: “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory. These are basic facts and the universal consensus of the international community. On the basis of the one-China principle, China has established official diplomatic relationships with 178 countries”.

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Some non-UN members are recognized by even a smaller number of countries. Let’s examine one of them: Abkhazia. It is a territory in the South Caucasus that self-proclaimed independency from Georgia in 1992. Russia intervened in 2008 to defend its borders during the conflict. After this, it formally accepted the existence of the state, followed by Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Tuvalu. In 2010 Russia signed agreements for the granting of a military base in the territory, after having blocked the renewal of the UNOMIG police monitoring mission in the UN Council in 2009. Moscow’s government also recognizes South Ossetia, Abkhazia’s neighbor, which became independent from Georgia in 1991.

Some states have even a more ambiguous status than those just mentioned, since they are recognized just by a few non-UN States, whose status is at risk as well. For example, Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, besides recognizing each other, have only the international support of South Ossetia. The two states consider themselves autonomous from Ukraine since 2014.

However, the most extreme situation exists in Somalia’s territory. The northern regions, which correspond to former British Somalia, independent for only 5 days in 1960, became on 18th May 1991 the independent Republic of Somaliland. No state in the whole world formally recognizes its existence: it is a proper “ghost country”. Nevertheless, Somaliland currently has nonofficial relationships with Ethiopia, Djibouti, South Africa, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the micro-nation of Liberland. Moreover, Somaliland conflicts with Puntland, a region in the North East which declared itself an autonomous state in 1998 but is internationally recognized only as a region of Somalia. Due to a territorial dispute over the provinces of Sool, Sanaag and Any, recently three new countries were born: Maakhir (which remained independent from 2007 to 2009), Northland (from 2008 to 2009) and finally Khatumo, which was proclaimed independent in 2012 and is not internationally recognized. The goal of this new state is to control all the territories under dispute.

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The absence or poorness of international relationships has consequences for the economy of the territories. The case of Kosovo, independent from Serbia since 2008, has been analyzed by the economist Jieun Choi. According to the study, the cost of trading with Kosovo today amounts to a 14 percent tariff, which is considered huge. The economist highlighted that bilateral nonrecognition does not affect the value of bilateral exports or imports but has a negative impact on the number of exporters, meaning that the country’s trading potential is significantly reduced. Consider that the break from Serbia has produced other costs: for example, the difficulty of the population to travel abroad and the absence of a postal system (introduced very recently).

In conclusion, research has proved the economic inefficiency of secession. In the globalized world, a positive relationship with other countries, conferred by UN membership, is essential to ensure the development of the country and a good quality life for its inhabitants.


di Francesca Sofia Cocco

Cover photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels.

Author profile
Deputy Director | francesca.cocco@studbocconi.it

Deputy Director and intrepid reporter. Currently studying International Economics and Management

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