Bougainville, an island in the Pacific, is holding a referendum to decide if it wants to remain a part of Papua New Guinea or become an independent country. Nithyananda, India’s fugitive godman, has reportedly founded his own country somewhere in the Pacific. Across the world, various territories are agitating for independence — Catalonia in Spain, Kurdistan in Iraq, Tibet in China. New countries are suddenly in high demand.
Explained: How does a territory become a new country?
There is no straightforward rule. Beyond a few set requirements, a region’s quest for nationhood mainly depends on how many countries and international organisations it manages to convince to recognise it as a country. The biggest sanction of nationhood is the United Nations recognising a territory as a country.
Who can declare itself a country
Anyone. There is no law barring regions from declaring independence. In Jharkhand in 2017-18, as part of the Pathalgadi movement, stone plaques had come up outside villages, declaring the gram sabha as the only sovereign authority.
Somaliland in Somalia has been calling itself a country since 1991, but no one else recognises it. Kosovo in Serbia declared independence in 2008, and only a few other countries recognise it.
What criteria must a nation-hopeful meet
Broadly, four, as decided in 1933’s Montevideo Convention. A country-hopeful must have a defined territory, people, government, and the ability to form relationships with other countries.
A country’s “people” are defined as a significantly large population sharing a belief in their nationality. Factors also kept in mind are if a majority has clearly expressed the desire to break away from the parent country, and if the minority communities’ rights will be safeguarded.
Self-determination versus territorial integrity
In June 1945, the right of “self-determination” was included in the UN charter. This means that a population has the right to decide how and by whom it wants to be governed.
However, another of the oldest, widely accepted international rules is that of countries respecting each other’s territorial integrity. This is conflicting. While a population has the right to break off from the parent country, quick recognition of their claim would mean other nations are agreeing to the carving up of one country.
The right to self-determination was introduced when a few colonial powers were dominating most countries, and questions of right were relatively easier to settle.
Today, the issue becomes thorny and shapes up either as granting of greater autonomy to certain regions within a country, prolonged armed conflicts, or both.
Thus, though Taiwan says it is a country, other nations defer to China’s feelings about it. Last year, Air India changed the name of Taiwan to Chinese Taipei on its website when China “raised concerns”.
Why UN recognition matters
UN recognition means a new country has access to the World Bank, the IMF, etc. Its currency is recognised, which allows it to trade.
Often, UN member states recognise a country, but not the UN as a body. This puts a country in the grey area with respect to protection against parent country’s aggression, and international trade.
By and large, so far, a country swinging the UN’s opinion in its favour has depended on how many of the big powers back it, and how much international clout its parent country wields at that time. East Timor, then a Portuguese colony, was invaded by Indonesia in the 1960s. But the western powers then needed Indonesia as an ally against Russia, and East Timor’s woes didn’t get much attention. By the 1990s, power alignments had changed, and East Timor managed to hold a referendum by 1999 and declare independence in 2002.
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