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How do you become an internationally-recognised state?

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says Iraqi Kurds would not know how to establish a state. Which begs the question: what steps would one have to take to establish an internationally-recognised state?

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How do you become an internationally-recognised state?

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You’ve held your independence referendum, citizens have voted in favour and you’ve declared your intention to break away from your mother country.

But, what next?

Catalonia and Kurdistan – both embroiled in controversial-but-very-different bids to win independence – could both soon find themselves in this very scenario.

Here we look at the steps needed to be recognised on the international stage as a state, described as “the means of rule over a defined or sovereign territory” and “comprised of an executive, a bureaucracy, courts and other institutions,” according to the Global Policy Forum.

Step one – declare intentions

The first action a nation must take in becoming an independent country is to declare its intentions to do so.

In order to do this, it must satisfy international laws set out in the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, adopted in 1933.

To conform to these rules a country must:

  • Exist within a clearly defined territory
  • Have a permanent population, which means negotiating issues concerning citizenship and residency
  • Have a government
  • Be able to enter into relations with other sovereign states

Step two – gain recognition

A new country should be recognised by existing states within the international community, a decision which is made at each country’s discretion.

One example of an entity that (including Taiwan, Palestine and Kosovo) are recognized as legitimate states by some countries, but not by others.

Step three – join the UN

Finally, a state can make an application to join the UN, which holds huge weight for a new country hoping to be recognised by the international community.

The UN has 193 member states that are sovereign and have met conditions – contained in a charter – to join the organisation.

It says membership is open to all “peace-loving states” that accept the charter obligations and, in the UN’s judgment, are able to carry out these commitments.

To join a country must complete the following procedure:

  • Send an application letter, along with a declaration that it will follow the UN’s charter, to the UN Secretary General.
  • This application is passed to the Security Council, where it must be approved by at least nine of the 15 members of the Council. If any of the council’s five permanent members – China, France, the Russian Federation, the UK or the US – vote against the country, the application is terminated.
  • If approved, the council’s recommendation for admission to the UN is then presented to the General Assembly for consideration.

The assembly consists of 192 member states and a two-thirds majority is needed for the new country to be successfully admitted into the UN.

Expert view: what are the chances of success?


For Catalonia it would be difficult to be recognised as an independent state without the backing of Spain, according to Robert Liñeira, an expert in electoral and referendum behaviour from the University of Edinburgh.

Dr Liñeira added it would be unlikely that Madrid’s allies in the EU and elsewhere would back Catalonia – unless Spain launches would he called a highly unlikely post-referendum invasion of the region.

“The key element here is recognition from major countries – that would change everything.

“Because the creation of a state is a political thing, there is barely no legal support on this.

“To be a state is a club, so the key thing is to be recognised by other members of the club and in particular by other European countries in the context of Catalonia.

“The likes of France wouldn’t recognise an independent Catalonia because they have diplomatic relations with Spain and a good relationship. Another reason is states are not happy with the idea of succession and the possibility territories could secede from another state.”

What about for Kurdistan?

“It’s a different situation, I’m not so familiar with it,” Dr Liñeira said. “But Iraq is close to being a failed state and Kurdistan to my knowledge is de facto independent and it would be a succession from a non-democracy, which I think changes everything.”

Wouldn’t Iraq’s neighbours with Kurdish populations not just object, either independently or at UN-level?

“Most of the states would tend to oppose Kurdistan’s independence unless they were rivals to Iraq and saw advantage in weakening Iraq,” he added.