How do you create a new country?

South Sudan, youngest country in the world, celebrates the 6th anniversary of its independence earlier this year. Image: Getty.

Within the space of a week this autumn, the people of Catalonia and Kurdistan will be asked if they want to live in an independent country. If these two referendums result in declarations of independence, what happens next? It may seem straightforward that Kurdistan, Catalonia, or even both would become the world’s newest countries. But it’s not that simple.

International law states that people have the right to determine their own destiny, including political status. Our right of self-determination is enshrined in the UN Charter, and clarified in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This could be taken as the right to have sovereign statehood recognised by the international community. However, it’s most often interpreted as the right of a population to determine how they are governed and who governs them. In other words, self-determination in today’s world most often pertains to choices within an existing country rather than as a path to new statehood.

This is partly because the laws on self-determination were mostly written during the period of decolonisation. That historical context cannot be ignored when interpreting their purpose. During that time, colonial powers were taking steps towards dismantling their empires. They had become expensive to maintain and political pressure was growing within the colonies themselves.

Creating a country

Another complicating factor in setting up a country is the fact that, for one territory to become a new state, another already existing sovereign state must lose some of its territory. That would violate the laws and norms of territorial integrity. These are some of the oldest and most steadfast rules underpinning the international system.

Recognition of a new state essentially means legally recognising the transfer of sovereignty over a territory from one authority to another. An international body, including the UN, cannot just take away territory without the permission of the original “host” state. To do so would be a violation of one of the defining rules of the system of states.

Kosovo, for example, declared independence from Serbia in 2008 but even to this day it doesn’t have sovereign statehood – despite more than half of the UN’s member states recognising its independence. This is largely because Serbia still claims sovereign control over the territory, although other factors are certainly also at play. In the same way, Iraq would have to relinquish sovereign control over territory in order for Kurdistan to become a state.

There are obvious competing and contradicting legal principles here. In at least one instance, these contradictions appear together within the same law. Indeed, what we find is that there is no clear legal path to obtaining sovereign statehood. There is also no legally established mechanism for who determines whether a territory becomes a sovereign state. So we have to look at previous examples to work out how it’s done.

The world’s most recent states are South Sudan, which was recognised in 2011, and East Timor, which was recognised in 2002. In the early 1990s, there was a wave of new states due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakup of Yugoslavia. In 1993, Eritrea also became a state after a decades-long war with Ethiopia, which had annexed Eritrea in 1962. Prior to that, the world’s new states emerged out of the shifting or collapse of empires, most notable with the end of colonialism.

For East Timor and South Sudan, and in many ways Eritrea, statehood was part of attempts to resolve another problem: violent conflict. In all three cases, the host state (Indonesia for East Timor; Sudan for South Sudan; Ethiopia for Eritrea) agreed to relinquish control of the territory as part of negotiated peace agreements.

All of these new states obtained sovereignty after the disappearance of their former sovereign power, or with the permission of their former sovereign power. What they all have in common is that they became states in order to resolve some kind of problem, meaning there was some international benefit to their recognition. For the world’s newest states, their recognition was more of a political act than a legally defined process.


When is a state recognised as independent?

Although it’s not clearly laid out in law, a territory essentially becomes a sovereign state when its independence is recognised by the United Nations. As the largest and most inclusive multilateral organisation, its sanctioning of sovereign statehood makes sense.

But while procedures for admitting new members are clearly laid out in the Charter and in the rules of the UN, these rules pertain to new members that are already sovereign states. Yet again there is ambiguity in the process that aspiring states must go through in order to become sovereign.

Becoming an internationally recognised sovereign country is not a clear or straightforward process. In many ways, it is determined by power and the international political climate of the day. And a surprising number of entities exist as unrecognised states, many for decades, without recognition of sovereignty.

The ConversationIf Catalonia or Kurdistan declare their independence this autumn, they may get sovereign statehood if their host states agree. If not, though, they could choose to declare their independence, and to exist as an unrecognised state indefinitely.

Rebecca Richards is a lecturer in international relations at Keele University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.


Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook