In past years we have heard a lot about statehood of Palestine, and that got me wondering when a state actually becomes recognized. If you look at the Wikipedia entry for the State of Palestine it states that it is a “partially recognized state”. So why is it exactly that we (in the West at least) don’t consider Palestine a sovereign state? I have had a couple of thoughts on the matter, but couldn’t draw any real conclusions:

  1. It is not recognized by enough countries. I guess this could be a valid reason, although it is currently recognized by just over 70% of all nations, which seem pretty decent. In comparison, Israel itself is recognized by 83%, yet it’s sovereignty is never really questioned by the international community.
  2. It is not a full member of United Nations. This also seems to be an uncertain argument, since there have been plenty of non-member sovereign countries since the foundation of UN. Even today, Vatican has the same observer-status as Palestine, and it is considered a sovereign state.
  3. It is not recognized by the major players, mainly United States, Great Britain, etc. I suspect this might be the real reason, although I doubt it complies by any international law.
  4. Some combination of all of above.

PS. I realize that statehood of Palestine is a controversial subject, so please keep a civil and objective tone. This is a Q&A site, not a discussion board. I am not interested in your political views, merely the technical aspect of statehood of countries.

So to clarify, the question is not about Palestine in particular. I am merely using it as the most obvious example we have today.

PPS. Please correct me if I am using the wrong terminology here. Perhaps there should have made a better differentiation between sovereignty, independence and statehood.

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    Examples of some countries with partial recognition: Taiwan isn't recognised by some countries (a few don't recognise China), and two countries don't recognise North Korea (South Korea, and Japan). See also: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_states_with_limited_recognition
    – Golden Cuy
    Feb 22, 2016 at 9:34
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    @AndrewGrimm I am aware of those cases and they sort of underline my point. Those countries, although not universally recognized, are treated as such, while Palestine isn't.
    – pajevic
    Feb 22, 2016 at 9:37
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    To the person downvoting my question, could you please post a comment explaining why this is not a good question for this Q&A site. Thank you.
    – pajevic
    Feb 22, 2016 at 12:35
  • Based on the text in the question, I was originally under the impression the OP either hadn't bothered Wikipediaing before asking the question, or had done so and just wanted to troll.
    – Golden Cuy
    Feb 22, 2016 at 20:06
  • As a personal opinion, I would define a state as a country where the governmental processes are stable. That is, absent any external incitement, power passes from one leader (or group of leaders) to another without violence, or a single long-term leader is able to keep order in the country without significant violence. If a country used to meet that definition and no longer does, it may be a failed state.
    – Bobson
    Feb 23, 2016 at 1:22

2 Answers 2


There is no commonly accepted definition. Every government decides for themselves which other states they recognize. Often these are not objective criteria (defined territory, permanent population, functioning government etc.) but rather political considerations.

A good example are North- and South-Korea which the whole world recognizes as clearly two separate states, while both Korean governments claim that the other is illegitimate and they alone represent all of Korea.

So if you want to know why your government does or does not recognize certain states, you need to look at their individual reasoning.

In the case of Palestine, the state which has the most direct interest in there not being a recognized Palestinian state is Israel. The situation is complicated and I don't want to reiterate it all, but let's just say that Israel would rather not have a recognized state of Palestine as a neighbor. Many Western countries are close allies of Israel. As such many Western politicians often share the Israelian position to not recognize Palestine as a state.

  • Thank you for your answer Phillipp. However, I am not so much interested in why a certain country might or might not recognize another country, but rather when it becomes commonly accepted that some territory is a sovereign state (even though some countries still might not recognize it).
    – pajevic
    Feb 22, 2016 at 12:34
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    @pajevic I think I answered the question: There is no common acceptance criteria for sovereign states. But I reformulated the first paragraph to make this more clear. I guess you expected an answer with a clear legal definition of statehood which allows you to decide without a doubt whether or not Palestine is a state and which can be used to prove everyone wrong who says otherwise. Unfortunately international politics don't work that way.
    – Philipp
    Feb 22, 2016 at 12:49
  • So you answer is that we are generally guided by how our own country (i.e. government) views the matter? I have thought this myself, and I think it makes sense for a lot of people. Still, I am bugged by the Wikipedia definition of Palestine being a "partially recognized state". I mean, technically both Palestine and Israel are "partially recognized", but there just seems to be a certain consensus that Israel is a sovereign state while Palestine isn't.
    – pajevic
    Feb 22, 2016 at 12:53
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    @pajevic What I wrote about governments can be easily extended to media outlets and internet communities. States are recognized when a) it's politically convenient and b) fits into ones general world view. You could get involved into the discussion on Wikipedia which state is recognized and which is not, but when you value your time and your sanity you should rather stay out of it.
    – Philipp
    Feb 22, 2016 at 12:56
  • Also, I am not out to prove anyone wrong. My question might have been about any unrecognized state. Palestine is just the most obvious (although perhaps not the easiest) example.
    – pajevic
    Feb 22, 2016 at 12:57

A group is a country and a sovereign state when two conditions are met

  1. It acts like a sovereign state
  2. Other countries treat it as a sovereign state.

Condition 1 means that there is a substantial group of people living in some region with de-facto borders and some sort of organisation or government that is able to determine and enforce the laws within those borders.

Condition 2 means that other countries either formally recognise your existence as a state, or treat your existence as a matter to be negotiated or decided by war.

Now there are lots of shades of statehood. I'll consider some case studies:

Palestinian territory has borders and an administration, but is not able to, for example, prevent Israeli settlements. It isn't able to determine its own rules. It has recognition from some states, but not all, and not the most powerful.

Israel has borders and an administration. It can enforce the law throughout much of its claimed territory. It has a powerful military that is able to defend it's borders. Other states either formally recognise it, or see it as a military enemy. Other states are not able to enforce their laws within the de-facto borders of Israel

Taiwan has well defined de-facto borders (even if these don't match the borders claimed by the government) and is able to enforce its laws within the de facto borders. It doesn't have much formal recognition, but other states deal with it as if were a country, for the sake of trade etc.

Sealand does not have a substantial land claim or population. Other countries do not treat it as a country.

Somalia in the 90s and 00s The region controlled by the government was very small, perhaps only a few neighbourhoods in the capital. It was not able to enforce its laws. It was called a "failed state" since there was no group able to be recognisable government.

Daesh in 2015 Controlled land with fairly well defined de-facto borders. Within their territory they were able to enforce their laws, and other countries treated them as a military enemy. However they had no formal recognition.

Scotland, Catalonia etc. Have some ability to self-determine, but this is subject to another state, they have effectively no recognition as sovereign states.

Native American lands and reservations Have some independence, but again are subject to US oversight. They are not recognized internationally as sovereign.

African Americans Do not have a region that they control nor a government or other organisation that is capable of determining and enforcing the law. There is no recognition of an African American state.

Of these, Israel is generally considered to be a sovereign state. The Palestinian territories, Taiwan, Daesh, and Somalia had some features of sovereign states, but incomplete in some ways. The others would not generally be considered to be sovereign states.

New states come about through a couple of routes: Military action, or through the fission or fusion of existing states.

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    What's up with "African Americans" as a bullet point? A bunch of supposedly hypothetical questions are appearing on the site today pushing the idea of some kind of African-American separatist state, something virtually no one in the real world is proposing.
    – user15103
    Aug 13, 2018 at 0:01
  • @Joe There are not a "bunch of supposedly hypothetical questions" appearing on this site today. Embellishing facts is unnecessary. There is a single question. The question is not hypothetical. What do you mean by "separatist" and "something virtually no one in the real world is proposing"?. It was just proposed on this very site, and has been proposed many times over during the past 200 years. Are you suggesting that African-Americans are owned by the U.S. and cannot or are incapable of forming their own state; or only white men (U.S.) and Jewish people (Isreal) can form their own state? Aug 13, 2018 at 2:10
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    Well I was hoping that this could be the dupe target for other questions about "what is a country", and "how come xxx isn't a country when yyy is". This question originally had a Palestine as its focus, but if a question about Khoi San, or Chechens, or African Americans is asked I can add a paragraph here and propose a dupe.
    – James K
    Aug 13, 2018 at 5:41
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    Anonymous @guest271314, this may shock you, but sometimes people pretend to ask questions, not because they care to hear the answer, but as a sneaky way of advocating for a position.
    – user15103
    Aug 13, 2018 at 15:43
  • @Joe "this may shock you, but sometimes people pretend to ask questions, not because they care to hear the answer, but as a sneaky way of advocating for a position" Can you cite an example and prove that the "people" are "advocating for a position"? How do you conclusively prove such a theory? Or is your comment opinion? Aug 15, 2018 at 0:29

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