3.  Conceptualization of de facto states and their legitimization strategies

In this article, the definition of a state comes from the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States.[3] According to Article 1 of this Convention, the essential criteria of statehood are: a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states.

In addition to a permanent population and defined territory, the traditional state also depends on internal and external sovereignty. As was mentioned in the introduction, the core problem of de facto states is the lack of external sovereignty. Kolstø (2006: 725–726) defines a de facto state as a territory where: (1) the political leadership must be in control of (most of) the territory it lays claim to, (2) it must have sought but not achieved international recognition as an independent state, and (3) it has to persist in the state of non-recognition for more than two years.

Pegg (2008) develops this definition, claiming that there is a fairly widespread consensus surrounding the basic elements of how to define a de facto state. In his words, disagreements come only around the edges of the definition, while not disputing the basic elements of it. In his framing of the term:


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There are six basic elements of the definition of a de facto state, a number of which come from Article 1 of the 1933 Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States. First, there is an organized political leadership which receives some form of popular support. Second, this leadership has achieved sufficient capacity to provide governance or governmental services to a defined population. Third, the de facto state effectively controls its territory or the large majority of it for at least two years. … Fourth, the de facto state views itself as capable of entering into relations with other states. Fifth, the de facto state actively seeks widespread international recognition of its sovereignty.

Finally, the de facto state is, however, unable to achieve widespread recognition of its sovereignty and remains largely or totally unrecognized by the international society of sovereign states. (Pegg 2008: 1)

Therefore, we consider de facto states to be regions that have a defined state territory, permanent population, and their governments are in control of the entire territory they claim, or at least most of it. Their state authorities perform state administration, they have the ability to enter into relations with other states, they have been seeking independence for at least two years while failing to gain international recognition of their independence (or they have been recognized by only a few countries).

The international community has long emphasized the territorial integrity of a state and the inviolability of the borders demarcating it (Lynch 2004; Pegg 1998). In the African context, the principle of the respect of borders existing upon the achievement of national independence is enshrined in the Charter of the Organization of African Unity (Resolution AHG/Res. 16(1) on Border Disputes between the African States) adopted in Cairo in July 1964 and in the Constitutive Act of the African Union (Article 4b) adopted in Lome in July 2000.

This implies an unwillingness of recognized states and international organizations to get involved in de facto states. This unwillingness is also due to the poor reputation of de facto states (Collier and Hoeffler 2004; Kolossov and O’Loughlin 1998). It is therefore not too surprising that the international community has traditionally supported the return of breakaway regions to the administration of the mother states through various offers of broad autonomy and asymmetric federations (Coppieters et al. 2003; Cornell 2001).

In the last few years, more and more authors have begun to address the internal dynamics of de facto states, which can affect the future status of de facto states in the international system and their relations with neighboring countries (Bakke, O’Loughlin and Ward 2011; Berg and Mölder 2012; Blakkisrud and Kolstø 2012; Caspersen and Stansfield 2011; Hoch, Souleimanov and Baranec 2014; Jelen 2014; Kopeček 2009; Matsuzato 2011; Ó Beacháin 2012, Souleimanov 2013), but the dominant approach of the vast majority of countries towards de facto states continues to be the diplomatic ignoring of their existence.

For de facto states, this approach generally means little foreign direct investments and the absence of loans from international financial institutions or banks located in countries that do not recognize the de facto state. Export options are similarly limited because most countries place restrictive measures on goods from de facto states (Popescu 2010). There are also severely limited opportunities for foreign companies or non-governmental organizations to operate in de facto states.

Other complications are created by transport, which is made difficult by the mostly closed border with the mother country, and also by the reluctance of most countries to open borders with an unrecognized state. Travel for the citizens of de facto states, even those with a passport from another country, is likewise difficult (Kvarchelia 2013: 26).

Generally speaking, there is a relatively substantial wall of isolation separating the lives of de facto states’ citizens from the rest of the world. And thus, it is no wonder that the vision of international recognition is one of the crucial issues for the foreign policy in de facto states, which is closely linked with their economic and social development.

During the 20th century, the traditional justification strategy for independent statehood was based on the concept of the right of a nation to self-determination that was connected with the decolonization process (Pegg 1998). In the case of de facto states which have appeared mostly during the post-decolonization period as a result of armed conflicts, their governments often refer to the historical continuity of their statehood and to a remedial right to secession based on alleged human rights violations (Caspersen 2009).

Since 2006, it has been possible to record a significant increase of statements from official state representatives in de facto states, who emphasize the importance of democracy promotion in their entities. One possible explanation for this increase in importance of democracy indicates the belief that those states that have demonstrated their economic viability and that promote a democratic state organization should gain their sovereignty. It is an attempt to democratize the state for the purpose of gaining international recognition, the so-called “democratization-for-recognition-strategy” (e.g. Broers 2005; Popescu 2006; Hansen and Bradbury 2007; Caspersen 2009; Berg and Mölder 2012; Kolstø and Blakkisrud 2012).

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