In 1933 a group of diplomats from fifteen nations in the Western Hemisphere met in the capital of Uruguay and came up with a sensible if not necessarily often-followed set of principles about the right and duties of states. Included among the principles of this declaration are a set of articles that have remained important in diplomacy and the discussion of what polities count as states. Of particular interest in our present discussion are the first three articles of this declaration that read as follows:
The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a
permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into
relations with the other states.
The federal state shall constitute a sole person in the eyes of international law.
The political existence of the state is independent of recognition by the other states. Even before
recognition the state has the right to defend its integrity and independence, to provide for its
conservation and prosperity, and consequently to organize itself as it sees fit, to legislate upon its
interests, administer its services, and to define the jurisdiction and competence of its courts.
The exercise of these rights has no other limitation than the exercise of the rights of other states
according to international law.
I have written at considerable length about the status of Somaliland as an unrecognized state and of its efforts to find a place within the international community in seeking recognition as well as providing through the well-being of its people and signaling its willingness to abide by international norms of behavior including anti-piracy. I do not wish to repeat any of that material here, but at the same time I think it is worthwhile that we state at least some of what the nation of Somaliland has done in the past thirty years to demonstrate that it meets the definition of a state regardless of what anyone else has to say about it.
If one looks at the first article of the Montevideo Convention, one can see plainly that Somaliland meets all four of the qualifications. Somaliland has a permanent population, and a sizable one as far as it goes. It has a clearly defined territory of the territory that was British Somaliland before 1960. It has a government that has featured regular elections that have involved the peaceful transfer of power, making it a better functioning democracy than the majority of Sub-Saharan African postcolonial nations by a considerable margin. Similarly, it possesses and has already demonstrated its ability to enter into relations with other nations on matters of local and global interest. And, as the third article states, the political existence of the state of Somaliland exists without respect to the recognition of this status by other nations.
Why is there such a gap between de facto and recognized statehood? For Somaliland the issue is rather straightforward, and that is the failure of the international community to deal with postcolonial fallout and issue of nationalism and identity. British Somaliland would have been vastly better off on its own as an independent country–the same territory that Somaliland has governed independently for thirty years now. Yet its existence for five days and its acceptance of false promises from the larger nation of Somalia have still been held against it more than sixty years later. Undoubtedly, if people could go back in time and give advice to the leaders of the fledgling state of Somaliland, everyone who went back would try as hard as possible to convince them to go it alone and not merge with Somalia because they would know that the union was a total disaster for Somaliland and the well-being of its people. Yet we cannot go back in time but rather must address the failure of the Somali state to develop legitimate institutions and a means of providing for the well-being of those in its borders.
It is Somaliland’s misfortune that the record of secession and independence movements in Africa has not been very good. Africa’s borders defy easy categorization, and thus far devolution has tended not to decrease the overall level of conflict but rather to merely change what is being fought over. Unity in South Sudan for independence from Sudan has not contributed in any meaningful way to peaceful political coexistence among a variety of Equitorial peoples within South Sudan after independence. Nor does the horn of Africa offer any obvious states without serious political issues. Would the Ogaden Somali fare any better in a Greater Somali state than the current citizens of that accursed state? Would granting a nation to Somaliland or Puntland or other de facto states in the region reduce the internal conflict? At what point can borders exist that allow for legitimate governments to rule that have the best interests of their people in mind and have the support of those people at the same time? It seems likely that an international climate that appears to be growing increasingly unfriendly to the admission of new states along with the unpleasant reality that recognizing states does not solve the problems of impossible borders and a general lack of sound and competent political leadership worldwide makes Somaliland’s situation a difficult one for other nations to deal with. 1960 would have been a great year for a young African post-colonial nation to receive recognition from the international community. 2022, like many years, has not been a good one.
When one thinks about the way forward for Somaliland, perhaps the best contemporary equivalent is the fate of Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea. A long fight for independence led to a recognized plebiscite where nearly 100% of the island voted for independence. Nevertheless, the road here is not easy for independence either, because the results have to be recognized by Papua New Guinea and then a plan for achieving recognized statehood has to follow. Generally speaking, in the contemporary world, new nations are only recognized when the independence has at least the grudging acceptance by the nation one is gaining independence from. Until and unless Somaliland has a functioning and competent Somali government to work with that is willing to let them go in exchange for friendly relations as neighbors, it might stay in this state of tacit recognition for a long while. Nations like Western Sahara, Taiwan, and Northern Cyprus have remained in that state since the 1970’s, after all, and there appear to be few disincentives for nations to claim land that has gained a functioning independence from them for the sake of international prestige.