Somaliland: Addressing the Controversies

Right now, the Somaliland government is conducting what it considers deportations from its territories of people it considers to be foreigners. Yet many others are considering this to be forced displacement of citizens, a move illegal under international law. Both are true assertions, depending on the position you take on what a country is.

So, what is a country?

Independence Day parade on the 18th of May in Hargeisa, Republic of Somaliland.

The answer to this question may seem obvious but it really is not quite so simple as it appears. You may be surprised to learn that there are no laws which legally define what a country is. Some say “a country refers to a territory with its own borders and total sovereignty”, and Webster’s dictionary says it is “an area of land that is controlled by its own government”. Both of these definitions are technically correct but whether one chooses to accept that as a reality is another matter.

The three theories

First, let me address the three basic principles/theories that are universally accepted on the existence of a country: The Montevideo Convention and its derivative theories, the constitutive theory and the declarative theory of statehood.

The Montevideo Convention of 1933 established four essential criteria that characterise a sovereign state with rights and duties. “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.”

Thus, any state that can satisfy these criteria is a sovereign state.

The declarative theory follows from article 3 of the convention, stating that as long as a state fulfills the four explicit criteria set out in the Montevideo Convention, it is a sovereign state regardless of whether it is recognised as such by other states. The constitutive theory, in contrast, holds that a state is only a sovereign state if it is recognised by other states as being sovereign.

Interesting to note is that the UN, although recognising the Montevideo Convention, nonetheless seems to operate under the constitutive theory. That is not surprising seeing as states get to vote on whether to admit member states to the UN and will not vote for those they do not consider to be sovereign states.

Somaliland and Montevideo

The Republic of Somaliland fulfills the four criteria set by the Montevideo convention.

  1. It has a permanent population (the nomadic nature of said population notwithstanding).
  2. It has clearly defined borders under which it had international recognition, first as a protectorate of the British empire and later as a sovereign state (for a few days).
  3. It has a democratically elected government with a constitutional mandate.
  4. It maintains diplomatic ties with several countries and entered into economic relations with many states.

Unique but Not Unique

Somaliland’s case may, at first glance, be similar to many other territories which find themselves in a similar, unrecognised state. Some famous states with precarious recognition are Israel and Palestine, Kosovo, and Taiwan.

Israel is a member state of the United Nations, but unlike other members, it is not universally recognised. There are currently 29 UN states which do not recognise the State of Israel (recognised by 164). In contrast, Palestine is recognised by 138 members of the UN but it is not a member due to several UNSC members withholding their recognition.

Similarly, 97 UN member states recognise Kosovo as a sovereign republic but it cannot gain UN membership due to the opposition of Russia, a UNSC member.

Taiwan is another famous case but it is fundamentally different from the others. The Republic of China claims sovereignty not only over the island of Taiwan but the entirety of China, including the People’s Republic. It claims to be the legitimate government (legally, not practically) of all of China and so the question of Taiwan as a sovereign state is not up for discussion.

Then why is Somaliland not recognised?

That is simply a matter of politics and nothing else. Somaliland has all the trappings of a state but regional and international geopolitics have hindered it from attaining full recognition for its de facto and de jure sovereign republic. The primary hindrance are the claims the Federal Republic of Somalia lays to Somaliland, based on the Union of 1960 (side note: the Act of Union was never ratified so there has technically never been a Somali Republic covering Somaliland).

Although Somaliland claims that that union between two sovereign states has been dissolved (like the United Arab Republic in 1971) with its declaration of independence in May 1991, Somalia has refused to recognise that dissolution.

Due to this challenge by Somalia, the African Union does not want to accept an application of membership from Somaliland and thus recognise it as a sovereign state — even though the AU’s own delegation concluded (pdf) that Somaliland did in fact have a legitimate claim to independence from Somalia. Other members of the international community claim they do not want to set a precedent for secessionist movements globally despite the fact that Somaliland technically is not seceding from Somalia.

For most, membership of the UN is the ultimate way of demonstrating sovereignty (except perhaps for Switzerland which deliberately stayed out of the UN until 2002). Seeing as Somaliland has full and effective control over its territory, the question of whether it has sovereignty has been fully resolved. It only remains to be seen when other states, both regional and further afield, conclude it is in their interest to acknowledge the sovereignty and existence of the Republic of Somaliland.

Somaliland’s independence argument will be covered in a separate essay.

Now, legal deportations or forced displacement?

The answer is legal deportations. We’ve just established that Somaliland is a sovereign state and thus has the right to remove illegal aliens from its territory. It might not be apparent to those under delusions about reality.

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A. Jama

A. Jama

Nomad who calls Stockholm home. I like writing about politics, philosophy, and entrepreneurship. I love discussing “far-fetched” ideas.