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‘Standards Before Status’ – Still Relevant?

Lecturer in Peace and Conflict Studies, Lancaster University
United Kingdom 

When the ‘standards before status’ policy for Kosovo was launched in 2003 it was met with significant interest in other territories that are seeking international recognition and it had a profound effect on their claim to independence. However, the ‘standards before status’ policy was reversed with the recognition of Kosovo in 2008. Does mean that institutional standards are of no relevance to the status of unrecognised states?

The idea of ‘standards before status’ is nothing new: up until the Second World War, recognition was in most cases only extended to states that had already demonstrated their capacity for effective governance. But with the process of decolonisation the origins of a state became the only criterion for its recognition. Institutional standards, or the prospect of developing such standards, no longer mattered. For aspiring states without a colonial past, the chance of international recognition therefore looked remote, regardless of their capacity for governance. What made the 2003 ‘standards before status’ policy so interesting to other unrecognised states was that it – along with the conditions attached to the recognition of the other Yugoslav republics in the early 1990s – appeared to suggest that things had changed anew; that recognition could now be ‘earned’ through the development of effective, democratic institutions. Claims to have earned sovereignty through institution-building and the holding of – relatively – free and fair elections therefore became commonplace among the leaders of unrecognised states.

Most observers, however, viewed these claims as naive – or insincere – and subsequent developments appear to have proved them right. Although the importance of democratic institutions was mentioned by a number of the states that recognised Kosovo’s declaration of independence, its recognition was not based on institutional standards; the standards were to come after recognition with an international representative overseeing their implementation. What did seem to matter was great power politics and having the right friends. This impression was only reinforced by Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Abkhazia may have had some basis for a claim to democratic institutions, but South Ossetia certainly did not. No one, in any case, even bothered to pretend that such concerns had been of importance. These recognitions were therefore very far from the cases of ‘earned sovereignty’ that other unrecognised states had hoped for.

In response, at least some unrecognised states appeared to give up on status, at least in the form of full de jure recognition. In Nagorno Karabakh, I for example noticed a distinct change in rhetoric: from a constant emphasis on the need for international recognition, which was to be achieved through developing institutional standards, to an emphasis on the attractiveness of the status quo. The hitherto preferred formula for recognition had proved elusive, so this goal was gradually replaced with the objective of improving the status quo through increased international engagement. Support for this strategy can be found by looking at examples such as Taiwan and Somaliland which despite their lack of recognition enjoy a position in the international system, which is the envy of other unrecognised entities. Taiwan retains considerable links with states that have switched their recognition to the People’s Republic of China and the entity is member of a number of international organisations. Somaliland officials are able to travel on Somaliland passports; EU and UN agencies have offices there; and the British Embassy in Ethiopia has sponsored election observers and a revision of Somaliland’s electoral law. Lack of recognition is therefore clearly much less significant for some entities than for others. In fact there is a spectrum of access to the international community: while some unrecognised states face international isolation, others are allowed quite significant economic, cultural and – in some cases – even military links with the wider international community.

Yet, lack of recognition does come at a cost: not even Taiwan enjoys full access to the international community and is, for example, barred from membership of organisations such as the UN and the World Bank. The states with which Taiwan has links are moreover constantly wary of damaging relations with its more powerful parent state. The greater level of engagement enjoyed by these entities ultimately depends on their parent state’s acceptance – or its lack of resistance. Taiwan’s membership of international organisations such as the Asian Development Bank is conditioned on its acceptance of the name ‘Taipei, China’, while the lack of effective authority in Somalia prevents it from opposing the international engagement offered to Somaliland.

Can greater international engagement be ‘earned’ through the development of effective democratic entities? The above examples suggest that the position of the parent state is more important than the institutional standards achieved by the unrecognised states. Relations with the parent state significantly affects the level of international engagement offered to these entities and therefore – somewhat paradoxically – the sustainability of non-recognition. Alternatively, unrecognised states can seek engagement from a patron state, such as Russia in the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but unlike wider international engagement this is likely to detract significantly from their de facto independence.

This is not to say that standards are of no importance. Even if the position of the parent state limits the degree of international engagement available to unrecognised entities, parent states may find it harder to reject such engagement if the unrecognised entity has shown itself to be capable of effective governance and respecting of democratic and minority rights. This is especially so if the leadership of the unrecognised state is willing to consider compromise solutions to the contested status of its territory. Northern Cyprus has, for example, seen increased international engagement, as a reward for its support for the Annan Peace Plan.

Unrecognised states that have better relationships with their parent states, that have demonstrated capacity for governance and that are willing to consider compromising on their maximalist position and engage (in earnest) in a peace process are therefore more likely to enjoy the kind of international engagement that allows them to survive in the longer term. Moreover, institutional standards matter for the well-being of the populations of unrecognised states and thereby for their willingness to stay and defend the entity. Standards therefore arguably still matter for status, perhaps not in the sense of international recognition, but in the sense of making non-recognition more than a transient phenomenon.

* Nina CASPERSEN, author of Unrecognized States (Polity, 2012)