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Political Issues: Recognition of an Entity as a State Research Paper

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Updated: Mar 17th, 2020


The relationship among members of the international community is central to the process of maintaining peace and promoting socio-economic development at the global level. The states that form the international community regulate their relationships through agreements or treaties that facilitate the peaceful resolution of trade and political conflicts.

In this context, the international community refers to “the group of states whose identity and sovereignty is recognized, and that choose to participate in global discussions and decision-making processes.” This definition suggests that recognition qualifies an entity to be a state, which in turn enables it to participate in the affairs of the international community.

However, some scholars believe that recognition plays little or no role in the process of determining whether an entity is a state or not. Thus, this paper will shed light on the significance of recognition in the determination of the statehood of an entity. In this regard, it will support the thesis that recognition enhances the functionality of an entity rather than justifying its statehood.

Theoretical Framework

The process of determining whether an entity qualifies to be a state is guided by two criteria, namely, the practical viability criteria, and the policy objective criteria. Article 1 of the Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States defines the practical viability criteria as follows. First, the entity that purports to be a state must have a permanent population.

However, the Convention does not specify the minimum number of people who can form a state. Second, an entity that aspires to achieve statehood must have a defined territory. This requirement ensures that the permanent population of the state has a demarcated land to live on.

Third, an entity that claims to be a state must have a government to perform the political functions defined in its constitution or laws. Finally, an entity that claims to be a state must be independent of external interferences. In this regard, the state achieves independence by developing the capacity to form relations with existing states.

The objective policy criteria guide the use of policies such as military force, self-determination, and operating under the control of the UN Security Council to attain statehood. To elucidate, self-determination refers to the legal right of members of an entity to determine their destiny, including political organization on their own.

In this regard, an entity that is considered a self-determination unit can achieve statehood despite failing to achieve all the requirements of the practical viability criteria. Additionally, an entity cannot achieve statehood through military means.

The achievement of the aforementioned criteria leads to the recognition of an entity as a state. However, the role of recognition in the process of achieving statehood is illustrated by two theories. These include “the constitutive theory and the declaratory theory”. The constitutive theory states that a state comes into existence upon being recognized by existing states.

In this context, recognition confers certain rights and duties to the new state in the international community. The constitutive theory is criticized because it does not specify the status of entities that are not recognized by all existing states. The declaratory theory, on the other hand, states that the right and ability of an entity to achieve statehood is not subject to the approval of existing states. Thus, recognition alone does not justify the existence of a state.

Arguments for the Significance of Recognition

First, proponents of the constitutive theory argue that recognition leads to the creation of a new state. This argument is based on the fact that entities that claim to state can only acquire international rights and obligations if they are granted recognition by existing states. Thus, a state cannot exist effectively without international rights and obligations.

For instance, only states that are recognized by the international community are granted membership by the United Nations and enjoy privileges such as participating in the United Nations Security Council or petitioning the International Court of Justice. Without these privileges, an entity that claims to be a state cannot participate effectively in the international arena. Thus, the entity cannot be considered a state.

Second, the significance of recognition in determining whether an entity is a state that can be illustrated by the ability to exist states to prevent secession groups from attaining statehood. For instance, Quebec’s attempt to secede from Canada failed because it was illegal under the country’s law and international law.

The reluctance of the United Nations to grant membership to seceding entities also illustrates the importance of recognition in the creation of a state. Since 1945, the UN has never granted membership to entities that intend to secede unilaterally from their parent states.

Third, recognition can validate the extinction of a state as illustrated by the case of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). In the early 1990s, the SFRY collapsed after four of its six members became independent countries. Under the practical viability criteria, the ability of SFRY to continue holding its title as a state was severely weakened since it lost a large portion of its population and territory.

This perspective was adopted by several states around the world, including the UN. In this case, recognition led to the extinction of the SFRY and paved the way for the creation of four new states, namely Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia, and Slovenia.

Fourth, recognition helps in sustaining states that have totally or partially failed due to internal political conflicts. In this case, the international community provides financial and military support to sustain a state that they recognize.

For instance, Somalia is sustained by neighboring East African countries such as Kenya since it cannot survive on its own. This example shows that recognition enables the international community to determine the continued existence of a state that should cease to exist because it fails to meet the viability criteria.

Finally, recognition invalidates the creation of new states through illegal means such as military inversion. For instance, the international community did not recognize Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait as a just means of creating a new state. Despite losing its sovereignty to Iraq, Kuwait remained a state since it was recognized by the UN and other states.

Arguments against the Significance of Recognition

Though the preceding paragraphs suggest that recognition is central to the determination of whether an entity is a state or not, the reality suggests otherwise. Recognition is not sufficient to qualify an entity to be a state due to the following reasons.

First, the claim that statehood is achieved only through recognition is invalidated by the Montevideo Convention, which states that “the political existence of the state is independent of recognition by the existing states.”

Moreover, the Convention states that the right of a state to protect its territory and independence, as well as, to adopt a political or a governance system that best fits its needs exist even before its recognition by the international community. This implies that states exist even before being recognized. Thus, recognition is a mere declaratory act rather than a mechanism for legitimizing or creating a state.

Second, the argument that recognition enables the international community to sustain states that should cease to exist since their ability to maintain the viability criteria is severely compromised is misguided. For instance, if the international community withdraws its support to a struggling state, the later might not be able to defend its independence. However, this does not nullify the statehood of the struggling state since it does not lose its territory.

Besides, the continued existence of the state will be justified by its self-determination. Moreover, non-recognition does not lead to the total exclusion of unrecognized states from the international community. This argument is based on the view that unrecognized states are also subject to regulation by international laws that protect human rights and peace globally.

Third, recognition cannot be used as the only determinant of statehood since it can lead to abuse of state power. In particular, dominant countries are likely to abuse their positions if they are to determine the statehood of other entities. For instance, in 1944, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics used military force to end German’s conquest of the Baltic States.

However, the USSR abused its position by annexing the Baltic States after dismantling the German regime. Since existing states have a right to recognize or not to recognize other states, they can easily suppress new entities’ ability to attain statehood. Thus, unrecognized states are likely to lose their right to decide their political destiny if recognition is used as the only criterion for determining statehood.

Fourth, recognition creates serious ambiguity in the process of determining whether an entity is a state or not. Since countries have varying opinions concerning statehood, they are likely to disagree on the entities to recognize as states. Concisely, it will be very difficult to achieve universal recognition.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that there is no law or theory that specifies the number of countries that must recognize an entity before it is considered a state. This ambiguity can be illustrated by the case of South Sudan and Kosovo. During its declaration of independence in 2011, South Sudan was recognized by only 15 states. Similarly, Kosovo was recognized by only 65 states when it declared its independence in 2008.

Given that the states that recognized South Sudan and Kosovo are less than half of the total number of states in the world, it becomes difficult to determine whether the two entities are states or not. Despite lack of universal recognition, South Sudan and Kosovo continue to participate at the international level as sovereign states. This suggests that recognition plays an insignificant role in the creation of a state.

Another ambiguity associated with the use of recognition to determine the statehood of an entity is the lack of a clear definition of the acts or practices that constitute recognition. For instance, an existing state may recognize a purported state for economic, but not political purposes.

Finally, recognition assumes a narrow definition of the state by considering only its legal aspect. Apart from the legal aspect, a state also consists of the people who live within it and enjoy the international rights conferred by its recognition.

Thus, the stage at which a state comes into existence can be determined through the sociological criteria. For instance, several scholars have argued that “Lithuania existed as a nation that had the right to fight for political independence from USSR since it was more racially homogenous than the other Baltic States”.

Similarly, Poland’s Supreme Court in a case that clarified the statehood of Poland held that a state become extinct only if its citizens lose their awareness of the social traits that set them apart from members of other entities or states. Thus, a state will exist even if it is not recognized by other states.


This paper supported the thesis that recognition enhances the functionality of an entity as a state rather than justifying its statehood. The arguments presented in the preceding paragraphs illustrate that recognition confers international rights and obligations to states.

This improves their ability to function effectively at the international level. However, a state cannot be created through recognition because they do exist even before being recognized. Additionally, achieving universal recognition is very difficult. Thus, it is impossible to determine the statehood of entities that are recognized by only a section of the international community.


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