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The contrasting cases of South Sudan and Somaliland show that, in particular, the UN, as the ultimate recognizer of national sovereignty on the international stage, is largely used as a vehicle by member states to further national interest while giving a semblance of recognizing territorial integrity as an international norm.

By Xiaochen Su

Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine has prompted swift and increasingly extensive economic sanctions from Western allies against Russian companies and members of its political and economic elite. Many of the sanctions have been justified as punishment for Russia’s ongoing violation of the integrity of Ukrainian sovereign territory. They were announced by the United States (US) and its allies, including Canada, the United Kingdom (UK), and Japan, as a means to oppose Russia’s continued occupation of Crimea, the pro-Russian Donbas separatist region, and additional areas that the Russian military has advanced into since the outbreak of the current war.

Despite claiming to protect territorial integrity as a critical and universal value, the international community has been largely selective in how it enforces its desire to observe this universal value. Instead, national interest in whether to weaken a “rogue” state facing geographical disintegration or strengthen a “friendly” potential ally, is a higher priority when individual states decide whether the idea of territorial sovereignty applies on a case-by-case basis. Two examples in Africa in recent years serve to illustrate the contrast between how territorial integrity is treated in rogue and friendly states.

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South Sudan and Somaliland

The first example concerns international support for South Sudan’s independence from Sudan. Fifty-nine countries recognized South Sudan as a sovereign state on 9 July 2011, and the United Nations admitted the new country as a member a few days later without any objections from member states.

International support for South Sudan’s independence is at least partially attributable to hostility towards Sudan, which the US declared as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993 based on allegations of sheltering Islamic terror elements. Sudan also suffered international sanctions for state-incited violence in its western Darfur region, which reduced international sympathy for the country’s call to support its territorial integrity.

Yet, while the international community quickly embraced South Sudan as a sovereign state, it has not moved forward with similar agitation for independence by Somaliland from Somalia. The lack of international recognition of Somaliland has persisted despite the country declaring independence in 1991 and operating with a self-governing structure since then.

As recently as April 2021, the UN Security Council has publicly declared its support for the territorial integrity of Somalia despite the ongoing civil war within the country. The international support for Somalia’s territorial integrity as a federal republic presumably also includes the country’s continued insistence that Somaliland is part of its sovereign territory.

For the international community, the same calculation that prompted their support for South Sudan’s independence does not exist in Somalia. The US and the African Union both provide aid that props up the military force of the Somali federal government. They see a strong Somali federal government as essential for weakening Islamic militancy, centering on the resurgent al-Shabaab and Islamic State offshoots, and reducing the continuing maritime piracy off the Somali coast against international shipping.

Any vocal support for an independent Somaliland can undo efforts to strengthen the federal government as a bulwark for regional stability and offend African sensitivities about territorial integrity. The reality dictates that the UN cannot support Somaliland in the same way as it did South Sudan.

The contrasting cases of South Sudan and Somaliland show that, in particular, the UN, as the ultimate recognizer of national sovereignty on the international stage, is largely used as a vehicle by member states to further national interest while giving a semblance of recognizing territorial integrity as an international norm. While the UN has been able to provide apolitical support in the form of humanitarian, economic, and sociocultural aid and development programs to separatist regions like Somaliland, it can do no more than speak on behalf of these member states when it comes to the political recognition of an independent nation-state.

Moreover, the UN has only been able to provide formulaic Band-Aid solutions to contain conflicts that threaten the territorial integrity it recognizes without addressing the biases that led to the conflict in the first place. Usually, such solutions involve creating peacekeeping missions that separate combatants through buffer zones, without a mechanism for persistent dialogues to tackle the roots of conflict.

A prime example is that of post-independence violence in South Sudan. In response to the country’s descent into civil war after independence, the UN created a new mission in South Sudan and deployed peacekeepers. But the UN did not actively lead talks between opposing sides of the war. Instead, the UN’s limited presence, centering mostly on protecting civilians, did not stop a general increase in violence.

In resolving conflicts surrounding territorial integrity, such solutions are not enough. As Western allies use territorial integrity as a means to boost friendly regimes in places like Ukraine and Somalia and weaken rogue ones in Russia and Sudan, foreign powers are proving to be an inconsistent protector of national sovereignty. Instead, supranational entities, most notably the UN, need to play a much more independent role in recognizing what are sovereign states and what are not by self-defined standards.

In this process, the UN in particular should be restructured to provide alternative methodologies that can go beyond the ineffective “peacekeeping + lengthy dialogue” formula in places with disputed sovereignty like South Sudan.

Putting the act of defining territorial integrity in the hands of international diplomats capable of acting independently of the national interests of foreign powers may be the first step. While defining territorial integrity outside national interests will remain difficult, experiences in Ukraine and in Africa show that the alternative is even less objective for determining what a country should look like in the international arena.


About the Author:

Xiaochen Su, Ph.D. is a business risk consultant in Tokyo, as well as the founder and managing director of the Study Abroad Research Institute, a Tokyo-based non-profit organization promoting international education. He previously worked in East Africa, Taiwan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA.

(Main image: A special session of the General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters on March 02 2022 in New York City, where a vote was held on a draft resolution to condemn Russia over the invasion of Ukraine. – Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

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