A commonly heard argument against recognition of Kosovo or Abkhazia is that it would create an immense precedent, given that there are hundreds of separatist movements in the world. If Kosovo or Abkhazia, then why not also Kurdistan or Euskal Herria? This reasoning is partially correct, in that the decision to recognise a state should be based upon a due evaluation of the arguments pro and contra, and that surely a similar set of arguments in a different part of the world should lead to the same outcome. But mostly, this argument is unnecessarily alarmist, since it ignores the fact that as separatist causes go, Kosovo and Abkhazia are rather special.
Kosovars and Abkhazians control a delineated chunk of land with a permanent population (a state) whose independence may be recognised or not, whereas Basques nor Kurds have a sovereign polity that could be recognised. If some states are considering recognition of Kosovo or Abkhazia partially because this presents a mere coming to terms with reality, then this in itself is simply not a precedent for the Basques or the Kurds, or for that matter for the vast majority of the world’s separatist movements.
Contested States in World Politics by Deon Geldenhuys is about those ten cases which are somewhat similar to Kosovo and Abkhazia. Geldenhuys’s choice to designate these states contested over the more common de facto and unrecognised is a nice find. Many of the states in question enjoy some recognition, and contested captures much better than de facto that it is the legality (de jure) rather than the empirical existence (de facto) of their independence that is at stake.
Geldenhuys’s book is divided into two parts. The first is conceptual, the second summarises the background of each of the ten contested states.
Geldenhuys’s set of ten states still shows a lot of pluriformity. The core set of prototypical secessions is formed by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Somaliland, Kosovo, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) and Nagorno Karabakh. Of these, the last four came about between 1989 and 1993 through the dissolution of the Soviet Union. While they recognise each other’s independence, only Abkhazia and South Ossetia enjoy some recognition by uncontested states. Kosovo is a late product of the dissolution of Yugoslavia, after it declared independence in 2008 it is now recognised by more than 80 states. Northern Cyprus seceded from Cyprus in 1983 following the 1974 invasion by Turkey, which is the only state to recognise its independence. Finally, Somaliland seceded in 1991 from its union with Somalia originally established in 1960 following their decolonisation. It remains completely unrecognised despite some diplomatic contact with neighbouring countries.
The remaining three cases are less straight-forward. The State of Palestine is the oddest one out among the ten contested states, as it is the only one that does not enjoy any de facto independence — it is almost as hypothetical as Kurdistan. It does not control any land or people — all it has is a nominal government, which doubles as the government of the autonomous Palestinian National Authority in Israel. Still, it has managed to obtain recognition by more than 120 states, which justifies its inclusion as a contested state. In addition, even Israel and the United States, in some sense its most ardent opponents, grudgingly recognise that a Palestinian State should come about at some point in the future. It thus serves as a much more relevant precedent for separatist Basques or Kurds than Kosovo and Abkhazia.
Next, the Republic of China, more commonly known as Taiwan, is also very special in that it has undergone a reverse development. It has been independent since 1912, its independence was previously uncontroversial and it used to control vastly more land and people than it does now. However, after its civil war with the communist counter-government, it was driven back to the island of Taiwan, and the great majority of states chose to recognise the communist state as the state of all China. The Republic of China is in the curious position that of all contested states, it provokes the least controversy, and is commonly identified as an independent country by non-state publications, despite being formally recognised as such by a mere 23 states.
Finally, the lot of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic somewhat resembles that of the Republic of China in that its fortunes have declined over the years, and that of Palestine, in that it has much more diplomatic support than empirical presence on the ground. It declared its independence in 1976, following the departure of the Spanish colonial administration, but its control of the Western Sahara is severely limited due to the Moroccan invasion in 1975 and the ensuing civil war. It now only governs the thin sliver of desert called the Free Zone, home to few people, and its government sits in Algerian exile. Nevertheless it is still recognised by more than 50 countries and is a member of the African Union.
The summaries in the book of these 10 cases are sufficiently detailed for an introduction to the particularities of each, and they are overall quite well-informed. Being summaries, the information is also readily available on the internet and in other literature, but it’s nice to have it all in one place. All ten owe their independence to unique historical crises, like the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and this ought to put at ease fears that their recognition would cause other secessionist regions to frivolously break away as well.
In particular, the section on Somaliland manages well to convey the absurdity of the fact that the international community refuses to recognise its independence, even though it is a well-governed state even by continent-wide standards, let alone the train wreck that is Somalia, for which it should be held up as a shining example. Instead, the international position amounts to demanding that Somaliland cease its rebellion and loyally return under the fold of a government that literally didn’t exist for much of the nineties and which since then has been unable to control even the entirety of its capital (Mogadishu).
The first, conceptual part of the book comprises three chapters. Of these, the third investigates some arrangements that can constitute an alternative to secession. As such, it is not very relevant in a book devoted to states that exist by virtue of the fact that they refuse to have their secession be undone. Some, like Northern Cyprus and perhaps the PMR may eventually give in, but the particular arrangements proposed for them are much better described in the dedicated sections of the book’s second part.
The first chapter discusses the definition of an independent state and recognition in international law and what makes a contested state contested. The second traces throughout history the status of the principle of self-determination in international law and the legality of secession. These two chapters are the intellectual core of the book, but the succession of often conflicting statements from international treaties and scholars in international law leaves one with the impression that at best, international law is merely descriptive in nature, and at worst, that it doesn’t really mean very much.
For example, the book describes one common view in international law (the declaratory theory of statehood) which holds that an independent state is formed by a government which considers itself independent, governing a certain permanently inhabited territory and its population. This definition is perfectly sensible, it is an apt empirical definition of what a state is. But then we don’t really need international law to tell us this — de jure independence turns out to be the same as de facto independence. Even worse, one might naively expect states to recognise other states as legally (de jure) independent based on a straight-forward evaluation of these criteria. But then none of the states under review would be contested. The fact of the matter is that states don’t seem to care about the international legal definition of a state. And why should they? After all, by their nature states are sovereign and can (within bounds) pretty damn well do as they please. It serves states’ interests much better to base state recognition on political considerations. But that pretty much obliterates the notion that there is universally valid international law. Instead, at best there are as many international legal realities as there are sovereign states (at worst, as many as there are people).
Geldenhuys notes that there is a competing view in international law on what constitutes an independent state, the constitutive theory. This holds that a state becomes independent by virtue of being recognised. Now, this makes de jure independence usefully different from de facto independence. But it reinforces the view that international law is completely in the eye of the beholder, since recognition is something states decide individually. And secondly, if legal independence is a consequence of recognition, it becomes inherently impossible for recognition to take into account the legal definition of independence. If international law fails to be prescriptive, can we still call it law, or does it simply reduce to international politics?
Of course, the author is not responsible for the general failings of the discipline. But in the end, he insufficiently manages to make sense of the conflicting opinions and practices in regards to statehood for the reader to be left much the wiser. The second half of the book presents a nice overview of the ten contested states, but this may only justify its rather steep price for a handful of people particularly interested in the topic.