There are few questions more interesting and more important for the international community than the issue of how new states are created and accepted into the wider global system through the process of recognition. While there are thousands of ethnic groups around the world, there are just 193 member states of the United Nations. And yet, for many years, the foreign policy aspects of secession and the recognition of seceding territories have received relatively little attention by scholars in the field of politics and international relations. This was largely because the subject was seen to be a marginal interest. Few territories managed to stage a credible attempt at secession. Almost none managed to gain widespread acceptance. However, over the past decade, there has been a significant growth in the attention given to secession and recognition in international relations. This has been particularly apparent since Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia, in 2008, and because of heightened secessionist tensions in the former Soviet Union. To date, the question of de facto states—territories that are unrecognized or partially recognized—has been at the heart of studies into secession and recognition in the field of politics and international relations. Attention in this area has tended to focus on the nature, structure, and international interaction of unrecognized territories. However, the scope of research is now widening. As well as interest in the historical development of attitudes towards secession and recognition practices, scholars are now looking at the way in which parent states—as the territories they have broken away from are generally known—attempt to prevent de facto states from being recognized or otherwise legitimized by the international community. Meanwhile, increasing attention is also being given to the role of external parties, such as great powers, as well as to the efforts of secessionist territories themselves to find ways to encourage recognition, or at least to participate more widely in the international system. Therefore, while the community of scholars working in the field of secession and recognition is still relatively small, the subject itself is undergoing rapid growth.
It has been almost 20 years since the publication of International Society and the De Facto State by Scott Pegg in 1998, the first book-length substantive theoretical attempt to investigate the phenomenon of de facto states—secessionist entities that control territory, provide governance, receive popular support, persist over time, and seek widespread recognition of their proclaimed sovereignty and yet fail to receive it. Even though most de facto states are relatively small and fragile actors, in the intervening years the study of de facto or contested or unrecognized statehood has expanded dramatically. The de facto state literature has contributed significantly to the growing recognition that the international system is far more variegated than is commonly perceived. An initial focus on the external relations of de facto states has increasingly given way to a newer focus on their internal dynamics and domestic state-building processes and on how a lack of sovereign recognition conditions but does not prohibit their democratic, institutional, and political development. Perhaps most notably, there has been an explosion in detailed empirical research based on original data, which has greatly enriched our understanding of these entities. Alas, the subfield of de facto state studies is also characterized by recurrent problems. There has been an extensive proliferation of different terms used to describe these entities, and much fighting has erupted over precise definitions, resulting in limited scholarly progress. Fundamentally, there remains a continued failure to reach agreement on the number of these entities that exist or have existed since 1945. The nuanced and empirically rich academic literature has also largely failed to advance journalists or policymakers’ understanding of de facto states. Yet, the prospects for de facto state studies remain bright. More diverse comparative work, renewed attention to how engagement without recognition might facilitate the participation of unrecognized entities in international politics, a renewed focus on parent state strategies, and increased attention to de facto states and conflict resolution are areas deserving of greater scholarly attention.
Since the 1980s, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) social movements worldwide have put significant energy into securing relationship rights. In the 1970s, however, the general sentiment in such movements in the Occident had been anti-marriage and anti-nuclear family. This changed in the 1980s due to three factors: the impact of HIV/AIDS, which emphasized how vulnerable same-sex families are; the rise of families headed by same-sex parents who did not have the same protections as their different-sex counterparts; and globalization, which transferred the ideas about same-sex relationships among movements and created energy and useful policy connections. During the 1990s, a wave of marriage alternatives spread around the world, sometimes extended by legislatures and other times by courts. The rise of alternatives has raised these questions: are they a temporary compromise on the path to marriage equality; are they a replacement for marriage that is free of its historical discriminatory heritage; or are they proposing an additional legal institution alongside marriage? In the 2000s and since, marriage equality became realistic and more common as two dozen countries gradually extended marriage rights to same-sex couples, initially in Europe and North America, but later also in Australasia, in the entire Americas, and even—in fewer countries—in Asia and Africa. Incrementalism is the generally accepted theory for why progress occurs in some countries and delays in others. However, scholars have criticized the theory as descriptively inaccurate and, normatively, as portraying marriage as the final frontier for LGBTQ equality—thus contributing to that community’s emphasis on marriage equality to the neglect of other possible advocacy avenues. Further, the incrementalistic account should take into consideration that the path toward recognition is not linear and is international as well as national. Supranational courts have played an important role in the progress toward recognizing same-sex relationships; at the same time, the globalization of LGBTQ relationship rights has also resulted in a strong backlash and in regression in some countries.
The sovereignty of postcolonial African states is largely derived from their recognition by other states and by the United Nations, irrespective of their actual effectiveness. Such international legal sovereignty has been a resource to weak African states, allowing them to endure against the odds, and to their rulers who have instrumentalized it to foster their domestic authority and domination. Yet, African sovereignty has also been a curse. Being exogenous to domestic social and political relations, it tends to isolate and shield rulers from the ruled and predisposes state institutions toward predation. It also standardizes and homogenizes the continent’s institutional landscape in disregard to the wealth and promise of effective institutional arrangements on the ground, to which it denies legitimacy. Despite the equilibrium properties of the African sovereignty regime, there might be opportunities to tweak the system in ways that could unleash more effective and accountable state and nonstate institutions.