How does a country become a country? An expert explains

Time for a redesign? Slava Bowman/Unsplash

Within the space of a week this autumn, the people of Catalonia and Kurdistan will be asked if they want to live in an independent country. If these two referendums result in declarations of independence, what happens next? It may seem straightforward that Kurdistan, Catalonia, or even both would become the world’s newest countries. But it’s not that simple.

International law states that people have the right to determine their own destiny, including political status. Our right of self-determination is enshrined in the UN Charter, and clarified in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This could be taken as the right to have sovereign statehood recognised by the international community. However, it’s most often interpreted as the right of a population to determine how they are governed and who governs them. In other words, self-determination in today’s world most often pertains to choices within an existing country rather than as a path to new statehood.

This is partly because the laws on self-determination were mostly written during the period of decolonisation. That historical context cannot be ignored when interpreting their purpose. During that time, colonial powers were taking steps towards dismantling their empires. They had become expensive to maintain and political pressure was growing within the colonies themselves.

Creating a country

Another complicating factor in setting up a country is the fact that, for one territory to become a new state, another already existing sovereign state must lose some of its territory. That would violate the laws and norms of territorial integrity. These are some of the oldest and most steadfast rules underpinning the international system.

Recognition of a new state essentially means legally recognising the transfer of sovereignty over a territory from one authority to another. An international body, including the UN, cannot just take away territory without the permission of the original “host” state. To do so would be a violation of one of the defining rules of the system of states.

Kosovo, for example, declared independence from Serbia in 2008 but even to this day it doesn’t have sovereign statehood – despite more than half of the UN’s member states recognising its independence. This is largely because Serbia still claims sovereign control over the territory, although other factors are certainly also at play. In the same way, Iraq would have to relinquish sovereign control over territory in order for Kurdistan to become a state.

There are obvious competing and contradicting legal principles here. In at least one instance, these contradictions appear together within the same law. Indeed, what we find is that there is no clear legal path to obtaining sovereign statehood. There is also no legally established mechanism for who determines whether a territory becomes a sovereign state. So we have to look at previous examples to work out how it’s done.

Catalan president Carles Puigdemont addresses an independence rally. EPA

The world’s most recent states are South Sudan, which was recognised in 2011 and East Timor, which was recognised in 2002. In the early 1990s, there was a wave of new states due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakup of Yugoslavia. In 1993, Eritrea also became a state after a decades-long war with Ethiopia, which had annexed Eritrea in 1962. Prior to that, the world’s new states emerged out of the shifting or collapse of empires, most notable with the end of colonialism.

For East Timor and South Sudan, and in many ways Eritrea, statehood was part of attempts to resolve another problem: violent conflict. In all three cases, the host state (Indonesia for East Timor; Sudan for South Sudan; Ethiopia for Eritrea) agreed to relinquish control of the territory as part of negotiated peace agreements.

All of these new states obtained sovereignty after the disappearance of their former sovereign power, or with the permission of their former sovereign power. What they all have in common is that they became states in order to resolve some kind of problem, meaning there was some international benefit to their recognition. For the world’s newest states, their recognition was more of a political act than a legally defined process.

When is a state recognised as independent?

Although it’s not clearly laid out in law, a territory essentially becomes a sovereign state when its independence is recognised by the United Nations. As the largest and most inclusive multilateral organisation, its sanctioning of sovereign statehood makes sense.

But while procedures for admitting new members are clearly laid out in the Charter and in the rules of the UN, these rules pertain to new members that are already sovereign states. Yet again there is ambiguity in the process that aspiring states must go through in order to become sovereign.

Becoming an internationally recognised sovereign country is not a clear or straightforward process. In many ways, it is determined by power and the international political climate of the day. And a surprising number of entities exist as unrecognised states, many for decades, without recognition of sovereignty.

If Catalonia or Kurdistan declare their independence this autumn, they may get sovereign statehood if their host states agree. If not, though, they could choose to declare their independence, and to exist as an unrecognised state indefinitely.