The recent Palestinian bid for international recognition has failed to secure the backing that the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was hoping for, and it looks like the United States will not have to use its veto at the United Nations Security Council.
Even so, the Palestinian leadership has until now rejected the less ambitious option of becoming a “non-member state” of the UN – which could be achieved through a vote in the General Assembly – and remains set on full recognition. This speaks to the continued appeal of international recognition. So what does the failure to gain UN recognition mean for the future of Palestinian statehood?
When David Cameron was asked why Britain did not support the Palestinian bid, he replied “I don’t believe you create a state by making declarations” and proceeded to argue that “you create a state by bringing together the two relevant parties … and hammering out an agreement” (the Guardian, 26 November 2011).
But the peace process has so far failed to create an independent Palestinian state, and has now ground to a halt, and although UN recognition would not in itself have created the empirical realities of statehood on the ground, it would have put Israel in a very difficult position. Even if – as was always more likely – recognition had been blocked (solely) by a US veto, such a moral victory would have strengthened the Palestinian position.
As it is, Palestine will continue to exist as an anomaly in the international system of sovereign states: it is recognised by a large number of states, enjoys observer status at the UN, and became a member of UNESCO in October 2011, but it has not gained full international recognition and the empirical realities on the ground do not reflect independent statehood.
Palestine is not the only anomalous entity in the international system of sovereign states. Entities such as Abkhazia, Nagorno Karabakh, Northern Cyprus, Somaliland, Taiwan and Transnistria have all failed to gain international recognition, or are only recognised by a few states, yet they function by and large like independent states.
They enjoy all the trappings of statehood such as an army, a government, courts, hospitals, schools and other public services, and some of these entities may even be better functioning than their de jure parent state. Lack of recognition, and an anomalous international position, therefore clearly does not preclude survival, but does that mean that recognition – or the lack thereof – does not matter?
These entities survive despite their lack of recognition and their survival depends on the support of transnational networks, including patron states, diasporas, international aid organisations and trade (legal and illegal).
Now, recognised states also rely on external support for their survival, for example in the form of military alliances and trade agreements, but for unrecognised states such support is always problematic. Their lack of recognition means that important doors remain closed to them.
Even a case such as Taiwan is unable to become a member of the IMF and the World Bank and its membership of the World Trade Organization is dependent on it accepting the name Chinese Taipei. For other unrecognised entities the reality is one of international isolation and their access to international finance and trade is almost non-existent.
As a consequence, most of these entities depend for their survival on the military and financial support of an external patron; such as Russia in the case of Abkhazia and Armenia in the case of Nagorno Karabakh. This has led some observers to denounce unrecognised states as little more than the puppets of external actors.
While survival without recognition is clearly possible – and some of these entities even thrive – the lack of recognition therefore comes at a price and this affects the kind of entities that result: external backing is paramount and internal cohesion crucial for their continued survival.
Unrecognised states frequently introduce political reforms – partly in a bid to improve their chance of international recognition – but such democratising efforts tend to be undermined by an emphasis on the need for unity in the face external dangers. These entities are, moreover, highly militarised and although the image of puppets is often over-played, unrecognised states do find it hard to escape their external dependence.
International recognition consequently matters; even in a time of globalisation and even in cases that have for decades been outside the control of their de jure parent state. Declarations do not create states, but their absence affects the kind of entities that results: their internal developments and their reliance on external actors.
The example of Kosovo, moreover, shows that widespread international recognition is far from an empty gesture. The above-mentioned entities, in any case, already enjoy the territorial control to which Palestine aspires. Despite the existence of the Palestinian National Authority, which was established to govern parts of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel maintains a degree of control over both territory and internal security that prevents Palestine from enjoying de facto independence.
This makes international recognition all the more important; it would help create a reality of statehood that is presently missing, whereas in the other cases, it would recognise a reality that already exists.
Recognition is not the be-all and end-all of state creation, but it does matter, and it affects not only the lives of the people living in these entities, but also the prospect of finding peaceful solutions to protracted conflicts.