Unrecognized states are places that do not exist in international politics; they are state-like entities that have achieved de facto independence, but have failed to gain widespread international recognition. Territories such as Abkhazia, Nagorno Karabakh, Somaliland, Taiwan and Transnistria frequently enjoy all the trappings of statehood: an army, a government, courts, hospitals, schools and other public services. They may therefore look like states and act like states, but they are not recognised as such in the modern international system.
Unrecognized states hold a fascination for the intrepid traveller with a fondness for the paradoxical, but their involvement in conflicts over contested territories also makes them of wider interest. Some of these conflicts – in places as diverse as the Balkans, the former Soviet Union, South Asia, the Horn of Africa, and the South Pacific – have elicited major international crises and intervention, while others could be the site of future warfare. Even so, there has been a lack of academic analysis of these curious anomalies and they remain subject to myths and simplifications.
Unrecognized states join a list of other anomalies in the international system, such as associated territories, internationally administered territories and mini-states, but unlike such entities unrecognized states are not afforded a place in the international system of sovereign states. Their lack of recognition comes at a significant cost, yet a number of unrecognized states have survived for decades and some of them even thrive. This raises important – yet hitherto largely unanswered – questions about the conditions that enable these anomalies to survive in a system of sovereign states and about the kind of entities that can emerge from non-recognition. In answering these questions we find out something important, not just about unrecognised states, but also about sovereignty and statehood.
Building on extensive fieldwork, my new book Unrecognized States: The Struggle for Sovereignty in the Modern International System examines the origins of unrecognized states, the factors that enable their survival and explores their likely future trajectories: is reintegration, status quo or recognition on the cards for these entities and how can peaceful solutions best be promoted? I hope that this book will prove a valuable resource for students, scholars and practitioners with an interest in contested territories, sovereignty, state-building and conflict resolution.
Nina Caspersen is lecturer in peace and conflict studies at Lancaster University.