Statehood 101

Big news, guys: The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) just declared independence from Mali.

If you’ve been following events in Mali recently, you know that the coup on March 21st was carried out by soldiers unhappy with the way President Amadou Touré’s government was handling the MNLA insurgency. The coup was a huge disappointment for fans of democracy, because Mali was a frequently cited rare success story of democratic consolidation in the region. (Although maybe it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise.)

With the military distracted with coup-ing, the MNLA has taken the opportunity to advance south and capture territory. Today’s declaration of independence follows the accomplishment of their territorial goals within Mali and notes that the “Independent State of Azawad” will respect the borders of neighboring states.

That’s not enough to get neighboring states to agree to respect Azawad’s borders in turn, though. Under international law (specifically, the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States), qualifying for statehood requires four things: (1) a permanent population; (2) a defined territory; (3) a government; and (4) the capacity to enter into relations with the other states.

Although the Convention specifies that once a political entity meets these four criteria, they should be recognized by the international community as a state, in practice, this isn’t really how it works. Somaliland, for instance, declared its independence from Somalia in 1992, but remains unrecognized despite a permanent population, clearly demarcated territorial boundaries, a functioning multi-party democracy, and extensive diplomatic contacts with other states. The reality is that recognition doesn’t follow satisfaction of the criteria for statehood; it is one of the criteria for statehood.

So this is bad news for the aspiring state of Azawad. The early responses have rejected the declaration of independence, and, given the commitment of African governments to border stability, this is unlikely to change. Meanwhile, the MNLA may face another challenge to their control of Azawad from al Qaeda-supported Islamist rebels Ansar Dine. Stay tuned…

*Map from Political Geography Now

Kate Cronin-Furman


  1. How sad “more developed” and longer-established countries see no need for following their self-generated international laws… Most telling is one of the last lines of the source article you quote: “Don’t ask question about problems that don’t exist,” says Niger. Can you really deny that creating political boundaries is a nonexistant problem for a continent whose population was largely nomadic (Touaregs, for example!)? I hope the future is brighter for Azawad than it seems.

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