Disputed territories is a term that comes and goes, depending on who is doing the disputing and whether the claims can be attached to other geopolitical trends or issues. Personally, I’m currently working on the concept as part of my research for my upcoming book, Legal and Government Research on US and Canadian Territories. Territories are incredibly different from one another and they continue to develop in multiple shapes and forms. For a long time, the term “territory” has become a useful bucket where national governments, the law, media, academia and national narratives lock these places in an attempt to define them or not at all. In the landscape of subcategories of territories, I believe disputed territories are the most challenging ones when pursuing legal and government research. In this post, I will talk briefly about where that difficulty stems from, and afterwards I will mention a few steps researchers can take to overcome these challenges.
When it comes to disputed territories, agreed upon definitions and categories can be extremely difficult to find. Palestine, Western Sahara, Kashmir, Nagorno-Karabakh quickly come to mind as examples of disputed territories. Furthermore Somaliland, Kosovo, Northern Cyprus, Taiwan and Kurdistan have also been included in this category with various names such as “unrecognized state”, “partially recognized country”, “occupied territories”, “self-administrative territory”, “de facto state”, “autonomous region”, etc. For the purpose of this short post, I will define disputed territories as having two major characteristics. First, disputed territories are places with more than one claim of sovereignty on the same place which at times turns into open conflict. And secondly, there is no overwhelming international consensus on the political status of the territory, whether it is is an independent country or a subnational administrative unit attached to another country. This is merely a working definition and very much in progress. As I mentioned before in my previous posts and always in my classes at the University of Arizona College of Law, it is important to attempt to define terms while at the same time acknowledging that definitions are never completely perfect and they are in constant change.
The major significant challenge when researching disputed territories, it’s the confusion as to where to go to find the legal and government information you need, either online or in books or archives. Sources may be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The different national governments and jurisdictions claiming ownership over these territories might have a piece of what you’re looking for under disparate names and with a heavy dose of political nuances and considerations. Whether you call them provinces, states, cantons, etc, the reality is that overall it’s strenuous to conduct research on individual subnational administrative units or in a comparative lens. Those difficulties get exacerbated when it comes to territories in general, but even more so when we talk about disputed territories. Main challenges include lack of gathering and availability of data, limited or inexistent access to (public) information, multiple political considerations, scattering of information among competing parties, destruction of materials during open war/conflicts, etc. Even sources produced by international organizations and outside experts might pose problems when using terms, names and sources which are biased towards one claim over another.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and in need of a break, welcome to my Foreign, Comparative International Legal (FCIL) Research world. It’s a fascinating ride with constantly moving pieces. There is no denying that disputed territories are flashpoints and topics of interest for international law, comparative research and international relations. However, disputed territories are also a potential topic of interest to other study areas such as Immigration, Refugees and Asylum, Human Trafficking, Natural Resources, Trade and so on. We are all concerned one way or another. So, what to do?
As I said before, due to the different claims of sovereignty over the same territory, the legal and government information you’re looking for may be located in different sources and databases produced by multiple countries. This myriad of contradictory sources come with the extra obstacle of having to use different keywords, names, languages, transliteration for the exact same territory. Let me give you an example. There is a landlocked enclave in the Caucasus region called Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia and Azerbaijan both have sovereignty claims over the disputed territory which have resulted in several wars especially since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Furthermore, there have been local irredentist claims since the proclamation of the Republic of Artsakh in 1991. From a research standpoint, this means that you will need to find relevant information in sources produced and maintained by three different governments: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Artsakh with the particularities, and political considerations for each of them.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, secondary sources are the most effective and at times the only sources you can find when it comes to legal and government information on other domestic jurisdictions, especially if you’re not fluent in the local language. However, when it comes to disputed territories, even the most well-known, reputable and trustworthy sources might have a political bias or not include all the necessary information. Whether it was intentional or not, the use of certain terms, historical events, government structures or lack thereof can be construed as biased or partisan. As a researcher, you need to be aware of these pitfalls due to availability and access to primary sources, the ever-changing situation on the ground and other political considerations. Constantly evaluating all of your sources is the key here to avoid any “surprises” or at least be aware of perspectives and intentions behind the information.
Another great strategy to consider is to search for international and regional organizations which might contain relevant information on the disputed territory. In the grand scheme of things, these organizations are concerned with flashpoints and sensitive geopolitical spotlights which for the most part include disputed territories. Examples of regional organizations interested in disputed territories are the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)’s missions both in Kosovo; and the African Union (AU)’s mission in Somalia, including Somaliland. At a more international level, the United Nations (UN) multiple peacekeeping operations throughout the world are great sources of information for several disputed territories such as Palestine, Kashmir, Northern Cyprus, etc. Sometimes disputed territories are also full or special members, observers, special participants, guests, etc. of international organizations depending on the political climate within the organization or the power exercised by the claiming rivals. For example, Western Africa has been a full member of the African Union (AU) since 1981. Taiwan is another important example of this despite the fact that the usage of “Republic of China” decreases more and more in the world, and the island is forced to change to a plethora of other names in the international scene to retain membership of these organizations, such as Chinese Taipei; Taiwan, China; Taiwan, Province of China among others. From a research standpoint, the more a disputed territory is embedded within an international or regional organization, the higher the chances to find a complete picture on the situation in the territory and the information you need. Usually, international and regional organizations collect a plethora of primary legal and government information and also produce summaries, analysis and other important secondary sources on their member states. One thing to keep in mind is that despite their best intentions, international and regional organizations are not exempt from biases, using dubious sources and even spreading/relying on misinformation. As I said before, the best antidote against this is to constantly and almost obsessively evaluate your sources, even those you usually trust and use in your research.