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Statehood in International Law: The Montevideo Convention

International legal doctrine and practice has and always will be centered around the concept of statehood. International law is above all a language, a professional vocabulary through which arguments can be made and decisions taken with regard to legal problems � including problems relating to statehood. We look at the international community as a large group of entities or 'states.

What does the word state or statehood then mean? If we were to understand the meaning of statehood through the lens of what is required to be considered as a state in the international community, then the basic requirements are territory, a population which means people, a permanent resident population, an effective government, sovereignty, and recognition by other states in the form of signing treaties or addressing the state in an international forum, etc.

These basic characteristics and requirements of statehood are mentioned in the Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States. But are these requirements always enough to determine whether a territory is considered a state, and is it always followed within the international community itself that prescribes it? What could be the most important characteristic out of the four mentioned above, and how important is it for a territory to be considered a state internationally.

Meaning, is it only important for a territory themselves to believe that they in fact are a state and function as one or is it equally or perhaps more important for the international community at large to accept their statehood. In the most basic sense, the importance of statehood is recognition. For a country or territory to enjoy the benefits of the international community, it must also be recognized as a state to be part of the same community.

If we look at the United Nations for example. It is well known that almost every country aspires to be a part of the United Nations in some form of the other. Being a part of an international league not only provides for protection, it also comes with an opportunity to be a part of a global forum where the needs and voices of all countries and regions can be voiced and heard. Territory and population are surely important aspects, but recognition remains to be the most crucial one as it is quite subjective.

Even then, all criteria for achieving statehood stand to be important. Let's look at these criteria in detail of Statehood as stated in the Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States. According to the Montevideo Convention, the existence of a territory is the first and most important characteristic of a state but there is no minimum requirement for the area.

This can be assumed to mean that a country or state must have a defined boundary. Though when we look at certain real-life examples, an argument can be put forth that in several instances, boundaries and territories of any country could be constantly changing. If we look at the situation that exists between Israel and Palestine and consider the fact that Palestine has, for the better part of history, had a fluctuating territory and has constantly been in conflict with Israel to claim what their borders would be.

The main conflict between the two is that the Arab population within Israel have wanted the creation and existence of their own state, separate from the rest of Israel and Israel has been fighting them over territory and boundaries of what should consist this new 'state' of Palestine. Yet, has come to be recognized by the UN and other countries of the international community as a state. This goes to show that even with fluctuating boundaries and territories, it is very much possible for a country to be considered a state and enjoy certain international benefits, so long as they achieve a certain level of recognition.

The next criteria mentioned in the Montevideo Convention talks about the existence of a permanent population. When it comes to the question of having a permanent resident population, the conversation revolves around the idea of nationality and birth. The state of Nauru is a small state that is situated in Europe with a constantly fluctuating population.

This is because they have a policy of providing asylum to refugees from various countries during conflict. Refugees are usually considered stateless for varying reasons. But the idea behind calling them stateless is because refugees are people that usually flee from their own states due to reasons varying from political conflict, natural disasters, or wars.

The current population of Nauru is roughly 10,000 people. It is a micronation but is stilled considered a state due to recognition from the rest of the international community. Because of the ever-tumultuous conditions of politics and war across the entire globe, it would not be fair for a state to lose its statehood due to fluctuations in population.

Countries are constantly being split up, refugees seek asylum in several countries and more so than that, there are also several states that exist that have a very small number of residing population. Hence, essentially population being a characteristic of a state essentially means that there should be habitation and an existence of society and individuals for a distinction between a piece of land and a state.

The third characteristic, and a slightly more important characteristic is the existence of an efficient and effective government. To further understand this criterion, we can look at the situation of Israel and Palestine. Though both states have some sort of international recognition, only Israel has been admitted into one of the members of the United Nations, and it is my personal opinion that a large part of this discrepancy is due to the effectiveness of both the governments. Palestine's government did emerge at the Oslo accord in 1993 but they do not have any security or any sort of military.

Israel has a large amount of military and territorial control is Palestine and Israel imposes all their machineries on them. The important aspect of an effective government is their ability to govern, and it is not mandatorily supposed to be a diplomatic arrangement but in the case of Palestine, the governance is not effective and hence this could possibly be one of the reasons why Palestine's statehood recognition is not as wide as that of Israel's.

The fourth and final criterion is one of the most important ones, recognition in the international community. Recognition, by logic, should be obtained after statehood has been obtained. Ideally, it cannot and should not be a criterion that is a constituent of what makes up a state, and hence it has always been under question and ambiguous.

Yet somehow, it continues to be one of the most important factors in obtaining statehood. Article 3 of the Montevideo Convention states that the political existence of states is independent of recognition by other states while Article 6 states that recognition helps in recognizing the rights and duties of the said state in question and hence, is an important factor. Andorra is a very good example of a micronation that has attained statehood solely with the help of the parent state that they territorially first belonged to.

It has its own constitution and its sovereignty but at the same time, it is the recognition given to them by France that gives them a position of attaining statehood. If we look at the criteria to obtain statehood in the larger sense, there seem to be several discrepancies and practical problems that may exist.

Several states are struggling for recognition and membership in international groups, whilst others in similar conditions may be achieving it with more ease. Recognition has come to be understood as the most important factor of attaining statehood. And hence it is the subjective nature of recognition that makes the process ambiguous and flawed.

  • Grzybowski, Janis & Koskenniemi, Martti. (2015). International law and statehood: A performative view. 10.1515/9780748693634-004.
  • Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Montevideo Convention." Encyclopedia Britannica, December 19, 2021.

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