Trades on the Sovereignty Market: Serbia Gives Iraq Weapons in Exchange For Non-Recognition of Kosovo

The rise of the relative importance of soft power in international relations has had an unintended consequence on international law: the creation of a sovereignty market.

The sovereignty market involves an international exchange of aid in return for recognition of an entity’s claims for statehood. This trading is sometimes carried out in a very blatant fashion, as was the case in Abkhazia’s outright purchase of Nauru’s recognition. More commonly, though, they are done in a more subtle fashion, with both the aid and the declarations of recognition done behind the disguise of normal diplomatic relations.

The latest swap on the sovereignty market’s trade floor is between Serbia and Iraq. It’s a reverse sovereignty swap, though, in that Serbia is not seeking recognitions of itself — it’s claims to statehood are secure — but rather it is seeking non-recognition of Kosovo. Kosovo’s claims to statehood have steadily grown, and although the recent ICJ opinion on the legality of its declaration of independence was somewhat ambivalent, with 69 out of 192 nations recognizing its sovereignty, Kosovo is well on the path to statehood.

To battle the rising recognition of Kosovo, Serbia is attempting to woo other nations into agreeing to non-recognition. However, because the importance of any state’s decision to recognize or not recognize is decreased where ulterior motives for the decision exist, Serbia has to be subtle about it. In the case of Iraq, the purchase of Iraq’s non-recognition of Kosovo has been disguised behind flowery declarations of long-standing friendship, and, oh, by the way, we’ve just given them three fighter jets:

The [Serbian] Ministry of Defence said that Iraq did not recognise the unilaterally proclaimed independence of Kosovo, and added that that Iraq’s support to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Serbia was confirmed.

Sutanovac highlighted that Serbia and Iraq have a long tradition of having a good, quality, partnership and friendly relations, adding that the two countries have common views on Kosovo-Metohija.

The Defence Minister stressed that the government of Iraq intends to purchase weapons and equipment in Serbia, and added that he spoke with the Prime Minister of Iraq about cooperation in the field of the military industry, after yesterday’s delivery of three aircraft.

He declared that the Iraqi side is very satisfied with the fulfilment of deadlines and quality standards.

Sutanovac affirmed that Iraq wants to engage Serbia in the reconstruction of an air base, building a military hospital and for the supply of ammunition of all calibres.


[Edit: Another interesting angle that just occurred to me is the political-religious intersection at work here. Kosovo is, of course, an overwhelmingly Muslim state*, while Serbia is not. It might seem odd that Iraq is willing to barter its non-recognition of a Muslim nation in return for military goods, but I wonder if this trade reflects a more different political divide at play: while Kosovo’s population is largely Sunni, Iraq’s government is now Shia and has been since the overthrow of Saddam. Conflict between Iraq’s majority Shia population and its minority (but still substantial) Sunni population plays a huge role in Iraqi domestic politics, and non-recognition of Sunni Kosovo may have been both a bid for Serbian aid and a way for the Shia government to give the Sunni factions in Iraq a poke in the eye.]

* Yes, LL2 (or at least the Susan-half of it) does extend its diplomatic recognition to the state of Kosovo.

Can the Mere Recognition of a State Be a Violation of International Law?

In the past few days, Russia has purported to enter into several agreements with Abkhazia, an autonomous region in Georgia that had proclaimed its own sovereignty and is now attempting to achieve recognized statehood. These agreements include the establishment of direct air traffic between Russia and Abkhazia (including an obligation on Russia to help repair the airport there) and the formalization of Russian presence in Abkhazia with a 49-year lease on a Russian military base in the region.

Abkhazian leaders have also proposed a law allowing Russians to purchase houses in Abkhazia on the same terms as Abkhazian citizens.

According to Georgia, these agreements were “illegally signed by an occupying power and a puppet regime”. NATO has likewise denounced the pacts as illegal. Given that Abkhazia is merely a region of Georgia under international law, the pact with Abkhazia cannot change Russia’s status as an illegal occupier of Georgia – and a violation of Article 2:4 of the UN Charter. (For obvious reasons, this poses a large hurdle on Georgia’s accession to NATO. If Georgia did succeed, the U.S. and other NATO nations could potentially be obligated under international treaty law to go to war with Russia.)

A few days ago, the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, released a statement on Georgia’s relations with Russia:

Recognition of independence of regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was illegal and their occupation was illegal as well, although they do not call it occupation any more, they take the territory legally, but say it’s not occupation. What do you call it then, is it a military tourism? What are these Russian troops doing then illegally in the other country’s territory? The way Russian propaganda works is very clear – you blame someone of what you are doing or going to do.

Although Russia’s occupation of Abkhazia is plainly illegal, the accusation that the mere recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is a violation of international law is a more intriguing claim. Can the recognition of a state be, in itself, an illegal act?

So far, only four states recognize Abkhazia: Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and, as discussed previously on this blog, Nauru. For two of these states, recognition may have in fact been in violation of international law. Both Venezuela and Nicaragua are signatories to the Montevideo Convention, and under Article 11 of that treaty,

The contracting states definitely establish as the rule of their conduct the precise obligation not to recognize territorial acquisitions or special advantages which have been obtained by force whether this consists in the employment of arms, in threatening diplomatic representations, or in any other effective coercive measure. The territory of a state is inviolable and may not be the object of military occupation nor of other measures of force imposed by another state directly or indirectly or for any motive whatever even temporarily.

So at least in theory then, Venezuela and Nicaragua could be in breach of a treaty obligation, although not CIL. Russia, however, along with all other non-American states, is not party to the Montevideo Convention. How then could its recognition of Abkhazia violation international law? Even had Russia not formally recognized Abkhazia, it would be entitled under international law to treat Abkhazia has a pseudo-sovereign in certain respects. For instance, during the American Civil War, the United Kingdom did not recognize the Confederacy as a sovereign state, but did accord them a “belligerent” status that allowed for Confederate ships to enter into ports on the same terms as ships flagged by recognized states. Even today, many nations will recognize private contracts, such as marriage, that were entered into under the auspices of a non-state, even if for other purposes the non-state is denied to have any independent existence.

The power to recognize other states is a privilege of statehood — not a duty. Had the constitutive theory of statehood had become a controlling principle of international law, there would be a stronger foundation for President Saakashvili’s claims about Russia. Judge Lauterpacht, a proponent of the constitutive theory, even suggested that international law should impose a duty on states to recognize other states.

This idea never took hold, however, and instead, under the declarative theory, states can use whatever criteria they wish when deciding whether or not to extend recognition to a new state, even if it otherwise meets all objective qualifications for statehood. Customary international law is more or less settled today on a declarative approach to statehood that declares a state is a state when it satisfactorily meets certain indicia of sovereignty. A state, therefore, is any entity that possesses “a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states.”

But this formulation is more of a definition of what a state should be than any sort of normative command constraining state behavior. Although an argument could be made that a state is in violation of international law when it purports to “recognize” an entity that does not possess these four criteria, I would expect many states to outright reject the validity of this norm — given how subjective evaluations of statehood often are, if 77 states recognize a state and 116 do not, would the 77 now be committing an illegal act? On the close cases, obviously not. But even defining what is and is not a “close case” is a tricky call.

What about a state’s recognition of the statehood of something unambiguously inapplicable? What would it mean for one state to recognize, say, a cruise ship as an independent state? Or how about something truly absurd – how about a toaster? Would this be an “illegal” act, or would it be more akin to a null command, something that is simply not cognizable under international law?

Obviously, there are a lot of actions a state could take as a result of its recognition of another state that would contravene international law. But the act of recognition or non-recognition in itself is harder to characterize as something that can be “illegal.”

Meanwhile, whether or not Russia’s recognition of it was justified, Abkhazia is attempting to obtain further international support for its claims to sovereignty, perhaps recognizing that having Russia as its patron is more likely to result in Abkhazia’s relegation to puppet state status than in true statehood. Currently, Abkhazian delegates are visiting foreign countries throughout South American, attempting to establish diplomatic ties with and, more importantly, receive recognition from nations there:

The agenda of the Abkhazian delegation’s working visit to the region includes the development of economic relations with Latin American countries, he said.
“We are looking for ways to fill our relations not only with political statements, but also with specific economic projects,” the acting foreign minister said.
During the tour of Latin America, the Abkhazian delegation will visit Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, and Bolivia.

Up until now, the recognition Abkhazia has received from other states has been either politically or monetarily motivated. By attempting to secure ties with other countries through “economic projects,” Abkhazia hopes to establish international recognition that is not merely nominal but also persuasive proof of its sovereignty. To this end, Abkhazia has made a point of emphasizing that it possesses both a moral right to its statehood as well as a positive claim to statehood under international law:

Abkhazia insists that the question of its recognition “be considered not only in terms of the right to self-determination, but primarily in terms of view of international law,” the acting foreign minister said.
“In both cases Abkhazia has indisputable arguments,” he added.

More and more, I am becoming convinced that Abkhazia and, to a somewhat lesser extent, South Ossetia, are positioning themselves in a manner that will eventually allow them to make legitimate claims to statehood. They are obviously a long ways off, I would not be surprised if, within the next decade, one or the both of them find seats in the General Assembly.


Nauru’s Prohibition on Transfers of Land to Non-Citizens

Earlier, I used the “cybernation of Wirtland” as a thought experiment for discussing how international law might treat the acquisition of territory for the deliberate purpose of obtaining sovereignty. Wirtland has ‘proposed’ to acquire territory, and therefore eventually achieve statehood, by entering into a deal with Nauru by which Wirtland would obtain sovereignty over Nauru’s strip minded lands.

Although Nauru would be entirely free to enter into such a deal, as the principle of permanent sovereignty requires that every State recognize “the inalienable right of all States freely to dispose of their natural wealth and resources in accordance with their national interests,” (GA Resolution 1803 (XVII), preambular para.5), there are many reasons to seriously doubt another entity could achieve statehood by acquiring them.

It turns out I was looking at the issue far too abstractly. While I still think it is an interesting question as to whether or not a country can, in a financial transaction, withdraw claims of sovereignty over a portion of its territory and grant them towards the establishment of an entirely new State with no prior existence, using Nauru as the hypothetical example is a nonstarter. Nauru is, in itself, an interesting test case for many of our notions of sovereignty, but it cannot be the basis of a new nation’s claim to territory — because Nauruan law prohibits the alienation of real property to non-Nauruan citizens.

I knew from the Case Concerning Certain Phosphate Lands in Nauru that phosphate mining in Nauru took place under a series of complex mandates, trusteeships, and leases, and I got curious about who exactly would have been said to be “sovereign” over Nauruan territory prior to Nauru’s independence in 1968.

While looking up stuff about that, though, I was surprise to see that under Nauruan law today, it is a criminal offense to sell land to a non-Nauruan citizen, and any such attempt to do so will result in a void transaction. The Lands Act 1976 of Nauru provides that:

(1) Transfer inter vivos of the freehold of any land in Nauru to any person other than a Nauruan persons prohibited, and any such transfer or purported transfer, or any agreement to execute any such transfer, shall be absolutely void and of no effect.

(2) Any person who transfers, or agrees attempts or purports to transfer, the freehold of any land in Nauru to any person other than a Nauruan person is guilty of an offence and is liable to imprisonment for six months.

So, looks like Wirtland needs to buy land from someone else.


Climate Change and the Jurisprudence of Statehood: Is a State Without a Territory Still a State?

I went to the program ASIL had yesterday on “Rights-Based Responses to Climate Change Induced Displacement,” which discussed the role of international law in handling ‘environmental migrants’ and internally displaced persons who are forced out of their homes as a result of conditions brought on by climate change. One of the speakers brought up an interesting scenario I had not considered before.

Rising sea levels may pose a serious risk to the national security of many island nations. For states such as the Bahamas and Tonga, a higher sea level is a grave threat, as the low lying parts of their territories that are at the greatest risk of going under tend also tend to be the areas of greatest habitation. But for other island nations, such as Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, the Maldives, and Tuvalu, climate change may pose a more severe and existential threat: these states may actually be at risk of becoming entirely submerged by rising sea levels. If these island states were to become completely swamped so that no part of their islands were above sea level, effectively leaving them with no physical territory to call their own, would they continue to exist as an entity recognized by international law?

Prof. Kälin mentioned the possibility of citizens of these at-risk countries becoming “stateless” if their islands go under. But statelessness, as he put it, could mean being without a nationality, not being without a state.  Even if an island nation were swamped, it does not necessarily imply that its government would not continue to exist.

Under international law, the traditional criteria for statehood does include “territory.” However, would such a formalist interpretation prevail after a climate related disaster sunk a whole nation? Or, in practical terms, would any state really have the callousness to stand up and announce, “It is unfortunate that the Maldives was submerged by rising sea levels, but we now object to its continued claims of statehood and UN Membership”? Maybe I am being too generous, but I doubt it.

There is also the possibility that any sunken nation could build up a tiny sandbar over the remains of their country, if the technical requirement of territory is found to be mandatory. There is no requirement that a state’s government be located within its own territory, after all — merely that a state have some territory to speak of, even if the seat of government is not located there. For instance, the internationally recognized governmental body of Somalia has at times operated out of the neighboring territory of Kenya, due to the unstable situation inside of Somalia itself.

Additionally, although the concept of statehood as a corporate-esque abstraction — a social construct characterized by its citizens voluntary allegiance, with little or no regard for the geograpgical location — has been a somewhat common trope in science fiction, there is in fact some modest precedent for the idea under international law. The Order of Malta, for example, has no territory of its own, but it claims to be a non-state sovereign entity, and has permanent observer status with the UN. It has diplomatic relations with 103 states, and even issues its own currency and stamps. Although most international scholars reject the notion that the Order of Malta is an “actual” sovereign entity, it clearly does exhibit some sovereign-like traits in practice.

Perhaps a nation submerged by rising sea levels would face a future similar in some respects to the current status enjoyed by the Order of Malta, although it seems likely a formerly-territoried state would face far less objection to its continued claims of sovereignty. The theoretical underpinnings of statehood have always been forced to evolve and adapt to changing political structures, however; it is not too difficult to imagine a hypothetical future world in which the idea that statehood is dependent upon attachment to a patch of dirt is considered to be archaic.


How California, Bermuda, and Hogonas Are Undermining the International Legal Order

Via Legal Theory, a cool if short article on the implications of sub-state activity in the international realm, Sovereignty, Territory and Fluidity: Lessons from Hoganas.

The modern conception of statehood, with its neat division of sovereign territories along recognized and inviolable boundaries, seems sometimes to be the inevitable geopolitical structure of the world, but it is of course a relatively modern invention — sovereignty, as we recognize it today, only emerged in the past two or three centuries. There is no reason to assume it will be the perpetual condition. Probably the most frequently discussed threat to sovereignty is the emergence of supra-state entities such as a “world government,” or at least a “continental government” in the style of the European Union. A second, lesser, challenge to the state model is the uncertain status of non-governmental non-state entities, such as the Red Cross.

But often overlooked is the role of sub-state entities in undermining sovereignty. Not only are top-down systems changing the nature of international law, but so are new bottom-up patterns of behavior emerging from domestically-recognized internal sub-sovereign entities.

A high profile example of this occurred recently, with Bermuda’s resettlement of ex-Guantanamo detainees.

At the time of the Uighur transfer, the government of the United Kingdom launched public protests because neither the government of Bermuda nor the government of the United States discussed the potential transfer with it at any point prior to the actual transfer of the Uighurs. The diplomatic intricacies of the relationship between these states are beyond the scope of this paper. However, this example is important to the paper’s overall discussion of states and sub-states in that it involves an outside state – and a powerful ally of the United Kingdom at that – recognizing that a sub-state could enter into an agreement which was in direct violation of the explicit laws of the sub-state and the state of which it is a part. Further, it illustrates an instance in which a sub-state derogated from accepted law and practice in order to insert itself into an issue for which the larger state has an accepted stance and acted in contravention of the larger state’s policy in the realm of security and international relations

Under “pure” international law, the only recognizable entities are states. Sub-states — let alone individual people — are simply non-existent on the international plane. But in the U.S., individual states, not the federal government, form the bulk of the vanguard for international environmental law developments.

[M]any individual states – including powerful states such as California and New York – have thwarted these [U.S.] policies and grouped together to engage in carbon capping and trading on a regional level. Additionally, the State of California has entered into climate change related agreements with Canadian provinces and outside states, such as Brazil and China, although the United States government has not done so.

Finally, in Sweden, the town of Hogonas in bringing into sharp relief some of the complications to the sovereignty model caused by the European Union. Although by domestic law, Sweden’s Riskbank is the only entity that can declare what will be accepted as legal tender, the southern tourist town of Hogonas has simply announced and put into effect a plan for local merchants to accept Euros as well as krona. In fact, this is not merely a violation of domestic law — even under international instruments, it is unambiguously clear that such fiscal decisions are to be made at the national level.

[I]f the Swedish government had acted to stop Hoganas’ acceptance of the euro, this paper would have an entirely different discussion. However, Hoganas’ actions in defying the stance of the Swedish government regarding the euro, as well as the layers of statutory and constitutional laws which established the state as the ruling authority in matters of monetary policy, finance, and international and EU relations were not stopped or counteracted by the Swedish authorities. The mayor and merchants of Hoganas openly announced that they would be accepting the euro as of January 1, 2009, and no national efforts were made to stop them, although it was accepted that such actions were in contravention of Swedish governmental and popular policy regarding the use of the euro and the retention of the krona.

Taken together, these examples suggest that international law is becoming the site of fluidity in the relationship between sovereignty and territory. Certainly, the classic understanding of the fixed nature of sovereignty and territory continues to exist in international law, perhaps most obviously when a portion of a state’s sovereign territory is threatened or attacked by another state or group of actors. Yet outside of such extreme examples, fluidity does exist and international law is increasingly impacted by it.


How Much Noopolitik Do You Want For That Realpolitik?: Nauru’s Recognition of Abkhazia

The recognition of a State by another State is usually based upon a mixture of factual and political concerns — factually, does the state meet all the traditional criteria of statehood, and politically, what are the risks and rewards of recognizing or refusing to recognize another sovereign. The tiny island nation of Nauru, however, has shown the potential of a third important consideration: raw financial compensation.

For $50 million, Nauru has effectively sold its vote in the statehood electoral college to the fledgling international entity of Abkhazia. Hat tip International Law Prof.

Nauru, an eight-square-mile rock in the South Pacific with about 11,000 inhabitants, was no pushover, according to the influential Russian daily newspaper Kommersant. In talks with Russian officials, Nauru requested $50 million for “urgent social and economic projects,” the newspaper reported, citing unnamed Russian diplomats.

This is not the first time Nauru has put a price tag on recognition of statehood. Back in 2002, in a somewhat more contentious situation, Nauru switched its recognition from Taiwan to the PRC for $130 million. So in merely 7 years, the price has already fallen dramatically, by $80 million.

This could of course be a case of price discrimination — Nauru knows China can afford to pay a lot more than Abkhazia — or perhaps it could be argued that Nauru’s recognition was more valuable to China as it was not just a vote for them it was a vote against Taiwan. But I think it is more likely that the difference in price can be attributed to a decrease in the service’s value.

State recognition is more art than science, but the specific motivations behind a State’s decision to recognize another State do affect how much weight that choice to recognize is given when it is factored into the overall statehood calculation. Now that we know Nauru is willing to give a vote of statehood to any wannabe sovereign that can meet its price, the significance of recognition by Nauru as an indicia of statehood will be severely discounted. Therefore, the more often Nauru engages in recognition-for-cash sales, the more Nauru’s recognition will decrease in value. Just like the phosphate that once sustained Nauru’s economy, recognition is a non-renewable resource, and will not sustain Nauru forever.

Essentially, for a mere $50 million, Nauru has sold off a portion of its international law making power to Abkhazia.

On the other hand, Abkhazia may benefit from the trade in other ways. Although Nauru’s recognition is worth little in itself, the fact Abkhazia was able to demonstrate its ability to acquire $50 million, engage in international diplomacy with another recognize state, and donate a sum of money as “foreign aid” could signal to other nations that Abkhazia is a serious player after all.

Under Article 1 of the Montevideo Convention, the fourth and final qualification for statehood is a “capacity to enter into relations with the other states.” The deal may have been somewhat sordid and tacky, but nevertheless, by acquiring Nauru’s recognition, Abkhazia proved it had the capacity to engage in foreign relations.


The Website Theory of Statehood

Although the definition of statehood under international law has not been definitively resolved, traditionally, per the Montevideo Convention, “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.” In addition, recognition of a state by other states arguably plays a more important role in the statehood process.

However, I would like to propose a new criteria by which the claims of would-be sovereigns can be evaluated. In today’s world, e-governance is rampant. Politicians stay in contact with their constituents via their homepages, agencies administer regulations online, and court filings can be done with the click of a mouse. So whether or not an autonomous region has a permanent, defined web presence that has the capacity to assist its governmental activities is a vital consideration when examining claims of statehood. So, using the Website Theory of Statehood, how do existing unrecognized states stack up?

Taiwan: Taiwan’s somewhat unique status in the “Is it or is it not a state?” debate makes it a good starting place to test the theory. Taiwan’s pseudo-official statehood is reflected in the fact that it has its own country code top-level domain, of .tw. However, ccTLD’s are poor indicia of statehood in themselves; they are distributed by ICANN, and substate regions can also be issued them, such as Jersey’s .je and the Virgin Island’s .vi.

Still, Taiwan starts off on a good note by displaying two strong hallmarks of internet statehood — numerous web domains for each different branch of government and the use of the .gov subdomain for its various state webpages. For instance, the president is located at, while the National Assembly is at (Bonus Trivia Fact from the president’s web page: What do the U.S. and Taiwan have in common? Both out presidents have law degrees from Harvard.)

None of the websites of the various Taiwanese government branches get particularly high marks for style, but they aren’t offensively ugly at least, and they amply satisfy all requirements for accessibility and content.

Verdict: Although Taiwan may not be a recognized sovereign under international law, it is a thriving Internet State.

Somaliland: Although Somaliland’s website is not nearly as sophisticated as the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia’s, Somaliland gets credit for the fact it actually operates from within its own territory. The prominently placed waving Somaliland flag image is annoying, but by itself, not particularly offensive. All in all, in terms of web design, it’s about on the level of a page created by a marginally talented middle school student.

Of course, the webmaster’s yahoo email address is a significant mark against a finding of web sovereignty. And although the fact it maintains a separate website for its Upper Parliament might have won it back some points, as the website does not appear to have been updated at any point in the past three years, it’s really more of a net loss.

Interestingly, the neighboring autonomous state of Puntland has a much more sophisticated web presence, although it is not seeking sovereignty but rather continues to maintain it is a part of Somalia. Aside from the annoying page intro, Puntland’s website is respectable and decent looking. It actually reminds me of the websites of several county governments from my home state of Georgia: clearly governmental in nature and reasonably active, but still small-time government.

Verdict: Not a state, but I’ll give them a solid E for Effort. Somaliland ought to seek advice from Puntland on how to manage its e-statehood.

Kosovo: The websites for the various government branches of Kosovo are all clean, sharp, and authoritative, with a faint air of bureaucratic staleness. In other words, they look exactly like what you would expect for a sovereign state government’s website.

Meanwhile, the website for the Serbian Government of Kosovo is, while passable, somewhat clunkier. More importantly, the dismal imagery and content of the site is all extremely negative in tone, focusing on pictures of bombed out buildings and emphasizing the fear, instability, and chaos of the region.

The contrast between the two certainly weighs in Kosovo’s favor. Kosovo’s website is professional and businesslike, and gives the impression that it is the model of responsive and diligent governance. In direct opposition to this is the Serbian website, which stresses its inability to control the region and is primarily concerned with advancing a political agenda rather than engaging in ah actual governmental capacity.

Verdict: Although the facts on the ground may be drastically different, in terms of its website, Kosovo qualifies for Virtual Statehood.

Cabinda: The wannabe sovereign territory of Cabinda, located in Angola, is a classic example of the self-deluded unrecognized state. Cabinda’s inability to exercise sovereign governmental control over the region is rivaled only by its complete incompetence at web design. Tiled backgrounds, flying bird gifs, scrolling text, spinning “email” icon, images unapologetically created by MS Paint? My god. I’d call this a sad excuse for a geocities webpage, but that would be a gross insult to Geocities webpages everywhere — Cabinda hasn’t even yet progressed past the Angelfire-level of web design.

Verdict: Does not meet even the most minimal of qualifications for Internet Statehood.

Western Sahara: The proclaimed government of Western Sahara has no access to a ccTLD, but .eh has been specifically reserved for the nation once it manages to obtain a unified voice. In 2007, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, the government that claims to speak for the sovereign territory of Western Sahara, tried to lay claim to the domain, but Morocco objected. As a result, ICANN refused to release .eh, stating that because of competing claims,

ICANN does not see a way to approve the .EH ccTLD delegation to one of the applicants without violating its long-standing policy unless the contesting parties are able to reach an agreement.

The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic still has a website, however:

Note the .ws in the domain name. Now that’s actually a rather clever bit of statehood marketing right there. The .ws ccTLD is in fact registered to Samoa, although the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is cleverly passing off the “ws” as standing for Western Sahara. Who needs .eh, the intended ccTLD for the nation you claim control over, when your Samoan buddies will lend you a domain name that sounds like it was actually meant for you?

Sadly, the website is in Arabic, which I don’t actually speak. The page gets medium marks: although it is simple, it manages to avoid being hideous, and I am reasonably confident that if I could read Arabic the site would be easily navigable. However, judging by the page URL’s (in Spanish, which I can pretend to read), the website does not provide anything in the way of government services, which is a mark against it. However, there do appear to be “official government documents” in PDF form, which gives it a little cred.

Verdict: Although Western Sahara’s separatist government displays some promising signs of Virtual Statehood, they are still a fair distance away from achieving internet sovereignty.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia: Aesthetically speaking, South Ossetia’s webpage is my favorite of all the unrecognized states’. It is official looking and professional in appearance, and yet still manages to be friendly and pleasantly warm and inviting. You’d totally want to vacation in a country with a website like that — they seem like such nice people. Also, it’s got snow leopards.

Abkhazia’s website is slightly more severe in appearance, comes across as a no-nonsense kind of nation, and may or may not have been a law firm before it decided to declare itself state. The blue-grey color scheme? The overlapping boxes lay out? That is seriously every D.C. small-to-medium sized law firm homepage ever.

Tellingly, however, both Abkhazia and South Ossetia lack their own ccTLD, do not have separate web pages for different branches of government, and do not employ the use subdomains.

But this doesn’t rule them out entirely. One major point in the break-away regions’ favor is that their websites far outclass Georgia’s websites for the region. Just take a look at Georgia’s Abkhazia homepage: It is ugly, slow to load, and contains graphics that appear to have been created by the same MS Paint artist that provided the images for Cabinda. Most of the English language pages are labeled “under construction,” and I’m honestly surprised they didn’t also include those little animated gifs of smileys wearing hard hats to show that. South Ossetia doesn’t even appear to have a .ge website that I could find, perhaps because Georgia revoked South Ossetia’s autonomy? At any rate, not having a web presence for it at all is a dismal way of showing your Internet Sovereignty over a region, Georgia.

Verdict for Abkhazia and South Ossetia: Have not yet achieved Internet Statehood, but are clearly serious contenders for the title. Recommend that Georgia take immediate steps to overhaul its own websites for the regions in order to firmly establish its claims of sovereignty.

Nagorono-Karabkh Republic: The website for the Nagorno-Karabkh Republic contains flashing banners and animated .gif files. This is an instant disqualification for statehood.

Verdict: Not a state. True sovereigns avoid anything that might induce epilepsy in their web visitors.

North Korea: Under International Law, North Korea is a recognized nation. However, under the new Website Theory of Statehood, North Korea should be considered a failed state. This may sound harsh, but given that the Admin of the website acknowledges that there is no internet access in North Korea and that no one in North Korea can actually see their own website, and that therefore the only people who use it are foreign North Korea enthusiasts, actually has more in common with a Beanie Babies fansite than it does a government webpage.

Although the website does at least exist and is moderately functional, it appears that a 13 year old goth boy was hired to design it. Sadly, the forum that was once featured on the site has since been removed. Apparently a web forum was too democratic for North Korea, as the old forum was replaced by a blog, which announced the change by stating: “Today we launch the new KFA Forum, which will mainly be driven by a few select moderators. Of course, everyone can still contribute with their thoughts, ideas, articles, etc, but we’ll be sure to have much more quality content for you.” In other words, the proletarians were not generating enough ‘quality content,’ so a more restrictive approach was adopted for their own good.

Notable features of the site include a FAQ, with helpful answers to questions such as, “Is North Korea a Dictatorship?”, “Is it true everyone in North Korea is starving?”, and “How can I join the North Korean army?”

Verdict: Not a state. I don’t care if the United Nations recognizes North Korea; when Transnistria, Puntland, and Nagorno-Karabkh have better web presences than you do, your statehood is officially revoked.