South Sudan Reminds Us What It Takes to Become a New Nation

Feb 09, 2011 | Updated May 25, 2011

A few months ago, I led a workshop in Cairo attended by representatives of many countries including Sudan. The representatives from Northern and Southern Sudan were very precise in their choice of language when they explained that they were both "from one single country, for now." With the recent vote in South Sudan, that is changing. As the creation of a new country comes about, many people find themselves asking the simple question, "What does it take to become a new independent country (sovereign state)?"

There are at least two necessary conditions: (1) the former ruling authority has to recognize the new independent country and (2) there must be general recognition of the new independent country from other countries.

For the Confederate States of America (1861-1865), these two conditions weren't met. The Civil War was fought to preserve the Union as the former entity did not recognize the Confederacy as a new independent country. Additionally, the Confederacy was not generally recognized by other countries as being an independent country.

In the Velvet Divorce, Czechoslovakia was peacefully divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in December 1992 where the divorce was preceded by massive nonviolent demonstrations. Following the Velvet Divorce, the two new independent countries were soon recognized by the rest of the global community, and in 1993 both countries joined the United Nations as member states.

In 2006, Montenegro separated from Serbia following a popular referendum and a vote by Montenegrin Parliament. Serbia accepted the declaration of independence and that same year Montenegro entered the United Nations as a member state.

Countries come in all sizes and shapes. China and India combined have about 2.5 billion people or more than 35 percent of the world's population. Meanwhile nations like Palau, Nauru and Tuvalu have populations smaller than a typical neighborhood in a large city.

Currently there are many entities that meet the requirements of having a distinct physical area, a permanent population, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with other countries. Recently created countries remind us that there are no special requirements in terms of physical size, population or economic strength in order to become an independent country.

For those entities that yearn for independence, they probably see the changes in South Sudan, Montenegro and Czechoslovakia and ask "why not us?" While the details are always very complicated, the most basic answer is surprisingly simple: that they don't have the willingness of the current ruling authority nor the general recognition from other countries. If they obtain the former, then the latter will likely follow.

Given that the criteria to be an independent country seems to be relatively easy to fulfill, will we see a future in which there are many more smaller countries being created, each having more homogenous populations?