As I write this, Hong Kong protesters are battling for a degree of independence from China — a degree that China seemed to have agreed to when England handed over the province in 1997. While there is some sympathy for the protesters, not one country so far supports them, and no leader has brought up the original agreement. Meanwhile, by a vote of 138 to 9, the United Nations has accepted Palestine as an independent, observer state, the same status accorded the Vatican and Switzerland until recently. Along with this, a majority of nations have agreed that it is illegal for Israel to erect a wall between itself and Palestine as the wall implies a de-facto border between the two countries. Why the difference? What makes one plot of land a country and another not?
Perhaps a good place to start is with the history. Both Hong Kong and Israel/Palestine were British possessions during World War II. Hong Kong island had been ceded to Great Britain in perpetuity by the Treaty of Nanking following the first Opium War. British control of Israel, Palestine was achieved by General Allenby in World War I and confirmed by the League of Nations in April, 1920. Following WWII, British Palestine was split into several nations (Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia ..). Israel declared independence in 1948 — and was accepted to the United Nations in 1949 following a war of independence. Hong Kong did not fight any war, nor gain independence, but was handed to China in 1997 in return for guarantees of autonomy. If Hong Kong had not been handed back it would probably be independent today, like ex-British Ireland, Canada, Jamaica, Belize, Micronesia, Malaysia, Bali, Indonesia, Siam, Singapore, Ceylon, India, Iran, Iraq, etc.
Clearly some of the difference in world opinion comes from the lack of a war. Arab Palestine has fought a war against Israel from the first division of the land, while Hong Kong has been peaceful. Another difference is how the world perceives Israel and China. Despite China’s semi-autocratic rule, one party rule, and its oppression of Inner Mongolia and Tibet, China is considered a model socialist-democracy. Israel, by contrast, is widely viewed as a European nation stuck imperialistically into the Middle east. The UN has resolved in 1975 that Zionism is racism, and world leaders routinely called Israel a racist or apartheid as the religious nature of the state is considered anathema to freedom — a problem they don’t seem to have with the Vatican or Saudi Arabia. Ex-US president Jimmy Carter calls Israel an occupier state, and many western religious and academic groups have voted to boycott not only Israeli products but also academics and companies thought friendly to the Zionist state. In 2013, the UN passed 21 resolutions of protest against Israel, and only 3 total against all other nations; a longer term, more weighted list is presented here.
But world opinion can not explain everything. Disdain of Israel does not, by itself, make Gaza and/or the West Bank countries. Nor does world approval of China preclude Hong Kong (HK) being a country. By the Montevideo conference of 1933, there are only four requirements to be considered a country must have: 1. a fixed population (both Palestine and HK have that), 2. a fixed geography (HK has, but Palestine does not, claiming all of Israel). 3. an internal government with internal control. As best I can tell, Hong Kong does while Palestine does not, quite. While the two halves of Palestine manage law on a local level, plus health, and education, there is no unified elections or government, and the two halves would likely be at war if not for Israel being in the middle. The final requirement for a country, 4. is that it be capable of making foreign treaties. It has been noted that a split country like Palestine could not do this. Further, even if united, Palestine is prevented from making treaties with other nations by treaty with Israel. The United Nations has seen fit to waive this requirement.
One should note that neither the Montevideo definition nor the UN requires that a country should be democratic, or that it provide any rights for its citizens. Most country was a monarchy before WWI, and many UN nations today are still monarchies or dictatorships e.g. Jordan and Cuba. Nor is there a requirement for a war or a military. Micronesia had no war and has no army. Costa Rica had army once, but after the president took over by military coup he disbanded it as the biggest threat to his life-long leadership. That a united Palestine would likely be a dictatorship ruled by brute force and self-interest is thus not a legal barrier. Still, as an American (and a Jew) I find dictatorship repulsive. I find it attractive that Hong Kong is a democracy with citizen rights and a working judicial system, but note that it provides no legal weight for their cause.
Supporting the idea that democracies should be countries and dictatorships not is something called “natural law”. The United States declared its independence by an appeal to justice, to “nature and nature’s god.” It was never clear what the legal definition of natural law was, but it shows up in the speeches of Lincoln and Wilson. I’ve speculated that the poor reviews Lincoln got for his Gettysburg Address were due to the fuzziness of his claims. If the standard for legitimacy was acceptance that “all men are created equal”, then hardly any country of the 19th century would be considered legitimate.
And that brings us to the final, oldest justification for a country: raison d’estat: that world opinion is not binding, and that a constitution is not a suicide pact. By this view, a country is nothing more than a group of organized people who manage, by whatever means necessary, to keep from being killed or disbanded. So long as the group can survive, it’s a nation. The guarantors of a nation’s sovereignty, by this view, are geography and military strength. The US is a country, and the Confederate states is not, because the US had a stronger military. China’s military is so strong, and HK’s so week, that no one doubts it would win a war with independent Hong Kong. Israel’s smaller military makes it more vulnerable, but Israel’s army is still strong enough, and well-organized enough to defeat any likely invasion from Gaza and/or the west-bank — especially since Palestine is divided. This is another version of natural law; Homum et homum lucus est.
My personal view is to rely on some combination of justice and raison d’estat. In this view, neither Hong Kong nor Palestine quite seems ready for statehood. I suspect that neither statehood should be supported by the US currently. For more details, see my essay, when to enter a neighbor’s war.
Robert Buxbaum, December 4, 2014.