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Can Azawad win international recognition?

The New York Times reports on the ceasefire in Northern Mali:

France on Thursday ruled out a “military solution” in its former colony of Mali to counter rebels in the north, who announced that they had achieved their territorial objectives and sought outside backing for a secessionist state they call Azawad. 

The declaration by the main Tuareg rebel group on their Web site came after other Islamic rebel fighters, who helped seized the ancient city of Timbuktu over the weekend, were quoted by local officials as saying they planned to impose Islamic law there.  [...]

In their statement, the rebel Tuareg fighters, calling themselves the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, said that they had decided “to unilaterally proclaim the end of military operations as of midnight on Thursday April 5.” The rebels said they had achieved “the complete liberation” of the territory they claim.

The statement invited outside powers to “guarantee the people of Azawad against all aggression by Mali.”

This Reuters analysis has more on the security implications of the news, including the possibility that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb may exploit the instability in Northern Mali. (The MNLA has vowed to expel al Qaeda from the region in the past but in recent weeks has formed an uneasy partnership with the more stridently Islamist militant group Ansar Dine, who have vowed to impose sharia law.)

Security concerns aside, with the MNLA have staked its claim to a significant swathe of territory, including the city of Timbuktu, and the Malian army in something of a state of disarray after last week's coup, it raises the question of whether Azaria actually has a chance of emerging as a state -- or at least joining entities like Somaliland and Abkhazia among the world's established but mostly unrecognized states. 

As I've written before, the recognition of new states has much more to do with politics than any objective standard under international law. To get a better idea of the obstacles Azawad will face, I spoke with Carne Ross, executive director of Independent Diplomat, a diplomatic advisory group that worked with South Sudan and Kosovo on their statehood bids.

In Ross's view, the three main criteria for statehood are democratic legitimacy -- whether the people in a territory actually want to be independent -- protection of minority rights, and recognition by other states. The last is probably most important from a diplomatic point of view:

The thing that is most important for a state to be recognized is that other states recognize it. It sounds circular but it does happen that way.

This is bad news for prospective new states in Africa, says Ross, because of a strong political bias against recognizing new countries. With a couple of notable exceptions -- South Sudan, Eritrea, Namibia -- the continents borders haven't changed much since decolonization: 

Particularly problematic is the African Union. The AU’s constitution, when it was set up, says that there should not be any alteration to the original borders of Africa as established by various colonial authorities like the 1884 Berlin Conference. It’s a strange position and one that makes the establishment of new states in Africa problematic.

Aside from concerns about Islamist militancy and the fact that Azawad doesn't seem to have a government or defined territory yet, the region's history makes it an unlikely candidate for recognized statehood:

As far as I can tell, there is no legal basis, or indeed a particularly strong political basis for the establishment of a new state. At least in the case of Somaliland, there is a case that Somaliland pre-existed the establishment of the State of Somalia. In the case of the Western Sahara, there is a legal premise in the referendum. In this case, there seems to be no legal basis whatsoever. 

So far, there hasn't been much communication from the MNLA to the outside world other than some vaguely-worded proclamations on their website and Facebook page. It will be interesting to see if the new movement attempts to make its case to the world in the coming days. 

GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images

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