Åland Islands

The autonomous (semi-independent) Swedish-speaking Finnish province of Åland is located in the Baltic Sea, at the southern end of the Gulf of Bothnia between mainland Finland and Sweden. 

The Åland archipelago consists of more than 6,500 islands – most are rocky islets, but more than 60 are inhabited. There are around 30,000 residents, who make their living primarily from tourism, maritime occupations, and banking. 

Åland’s autonomous status means that it has its own government, language, and cultural policy. Since 1922, the country has had its own parliament, as well as a representative in the Finnish national parliament. 

Finnish legislation applies to foreign policy, civil and criminal law, customs, and monetary policy. Finnish sovereignty is now perceived as benevolent and even beneficial by most of the islanders.


Chuuk is one of the four constituent parts of the Federated States of Micronesia; a collection of over a thousand islands located north of Papua New Guinea.

Having been part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific, which was administered by the United States. Micronesia nominally became an independent state in 1979.

It signed a Compact of Free Association with the United States in 1986. This means that Washington handles the country’s defense and foreign affairs and provides financial assistance.

Over the years, tensions have grown between Chuuk, which has about half the country’s population of 110,000 people, and the three other states of the Federation over the issue of state finances.

Originally, Chuuk intended to hold a referendum on independence in 2015. However, this was postponed until March 2019 over the constitutionality of secession.

This later vote was then also delayed until November 2020. However, in February 2020, it was announced that the referendum had been postponed a third time, until March 2022.

At this stage, it’s unclear when, or even whether, a vote will in fact be held. Importantly, the United States has come out against independence and has said it won’t negotiate a separate free association agreement with an independent Chuuk.

But others suspect that the country could instead look to China for funding if this happens. This adds an interesting geopolitical dimension to the issue.

West Papua

The western part of the island of New Guinea had been a part of the Dutch East Indies. When this became independent as Indonesia, in the late 1940s, Netherlands New Guinea remained in Dutch hands.

While Indonesia laid claim to the territory, the Dutch instead envisaged giving it eventual independence. However, in the face of mounting pressure from Indonesia, in 1962 the Dutch government agreed to hand it over to UN administration with an understanding that this would pave the way for it to be passed to Indonesian rule pending a referendum on its future.

In 1965, following the handover to Indonesia, the Free Papuan Movement was established to secure the territory’s independence. Then, four years later, in 1969, the referendum that had been promised was held.

But rather than allow a popular vote, Indonesia instead hand-picked over a thousand elders, who decided unanimously to keep the territory as part of Indonesia. In the decades since then, the conflict in West Papua has continued.

However, very little is known about the actual situation on the ground as Indonesia forbids foreign journalists from entering the territory. That said, there have been allegations of large numbers of deaths and widespread human rights abuses.

Moreover, there also appears to have been an escalation in fighting in the past few years. Although West Papua has been regularly raised at the UN General Assembly by various Pacific states, Indonesia insists that its sovereignty is not up for debate.


To my mind, this is one of the strongest contenders for recognition. A British colonial trusteeship, it achieved independence on 26 June 1960 and was promptly recognized by over 30 countries.

However, just five days later, 1 July 1960, it united with Italian Somali-land to form the Somali Republic. This soon proved to be a difficult and unhappy union.

Somaliland’s autonomy was stripped away and it found itself increasingly sidelined. However, in 1991, as what had now become Somalia sank into chaos following the collapse of the central government, Somaliland reclaimed its independence.

Despite its stability compared to Somalia, in the 30 years since then it has remained unrecognized on the world stage. While its case for statehood undoubtedly has a lot of sympathy, this is yet to be translated into formal acknowledgement by any UN members.

Even though a 2005 African Union fact-finding mission recommended that it be accepted as an independent sovereign state. That said, it has built up good working relations with a number of countries in Africa.

It also has high level contacts with many other countries around the world; not least of all the United Kingdom. Ultimately, it’s hard to see how Somaliland can ever reunite with Somalia.

But it also needs to make a breakthrough on international recognition. The question therefore is which country could be willing to go first and recognize it?


This is an interesting case, not least of all because it’s often said that the Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without their own state. Although they were promised the prospect of their own country under the Treaty of Sevres, at the end of the First World War, the agreement was never in fact implemented.

Instead, the territory was divided between Turkey and Iraq. In the century since then, the campaign for Kurdish independence has continued. In Turkey, the Kurdish Workers Party, the PKK, has waged a guerrilla campaign for over a quarter of a century.

However, the main focus has been on Iraq. In 1991, following the first Gulf War, the Kurds in northern Iraq established their own autonomous region, which soon came to be seen as an independent state in waiting.

This changed in 2003 with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The United States and other key actors wanted to keep Iraq united; albeit retaining Kurdish autonomy.

Nevertheless, on 25 September 2017, and despite strong objections from the Iraqi Government, the Kurdish Government organized a referendum on statehood.

With a 72% turnout, 92.73% supported independence. While many expected a declaration of independence, following considerable pressure from regional actors and key international partners, and a military campaign by the Iraqi Government, just three weeks later the Kurdish leadership announced that the results of the referendum had been frozen.

As things stand, it’s unclear when, rather than if, another push for independence will occur.


Located in the southern Caucasus, it came under Russian rule at the start of the 19th century. Following the Russian Revolution, it became a Soviet Socialist Republic, before being incorporated into the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, as an autonomous republic, in 1931.

On 23 July 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia unilaterally declared independence. Although Georgia tried to reassert its authority, Abkhaz forces aided by Russia were able to hold on to most of the territory until, in May 1994, an UN-monitored ceasefire was reached.

Although peace talks were held in the years that followed, in August 2008 Russia and Abkhazia launched an operation to take back the remaining territory held by Georgia.

Moscow then announced that it had recognized Abkhazia as an independent state; as did five other countries: Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the Pacific island states of Nauru, Vanuatu, and Tuvalu.

Overall, it’s hard to see where things go from here. There’s little immediate prospect of reunification. Meanwhile, wider international recognition seems highly unlikely.

This is one of the most clearly frozen of all the independence conflicts. South Ossetia is different. Despite the international recognition it has received alongside Abkhazia, I’m not entirely convinced it is truly a de facto state.

Nor do I think it truly aspires to independence. Instead, many believe the aim is to unite with Russia.


In 1947, the United Nations proposed that the British held territory of Palestine be partitioned to create an independent Jewish and an independent Arab state.

This was rejected by the Palestinians, and when Israel was created, in May 1948, it was immediately attacked by its Arab neighbors. In the ensuing conflict, Israel captured three-quarters of the territory originally set aside for a Palestinian state.

Just under 20 years later, Israel was attacked again. This time it took control of the remaining Palestinian territories: the West Bank and Gaza. This led to UN Security Council Resolution 242, which called for Israel to withdraw from the territories it had captured in 1967, and for all parties to accept the sovereignty and territorial integrity of every state in the region.

Then, in 1974, the UN General Assembly confirmed the inalienable rights of the Palestinians to self-determination and national independence. On 15 November 1988, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the PLO, formally proclaimed the State of Palestine.

While Israeli and Palestinian leaders subsequently agreed to a two-state solution, which would see a fully independent Palestine coexist alongside Israel, progress has stalled.

As a result, Palestine has pressed ahead with its diplomatic campaign for recognition. Today, its statehood has been accepted by almost 140 countries around the world, and in 2011 it applied to join the UN.

Although this was blocked by the United States, on 29 November 2012 Palestine was admitted as a non-member observing state at the UN. However, as things stand, there’s little sign a fully independent Palestinian state will exist anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Israel’s threats to formally annex the occupied territories risk making the actual realization of a Palestinian state all but impossible.


In 1991, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia broke apart, sparking a series of conflicts. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats fought to break away and unite with Serbia and Croatia respectively.

In 1995, a peace agreement was negotiated that saw the Bosnian Serbs reintegrate their self-proclaimed entity, Republika Srpska, into the Bosnian state – albeit with a high degree of autonomy.

At first, this reintegration appeared to be making progress. However, over the past decade this has been reversed. Much needed constitutional reforms have failed and political relations have broken down between the communities.

Meanwhile, senior members of the Bosnian Serb leadership have repeatedly and increasingly suggested that Republika Srpska might try to break away and either form an independent state or unite with neighboring Serbia.

In reality, it seems hard to see how either could happen. Secession is explicitly ruled out under the terms of the 1995 peace agreement and Bosnia’s territorial integrity has been repeatedly reaffirmed by the UN Security Council.

Nevertheless, threats of secession remain a source of genuine concern. Many feel that there’s a real possibility of a return to conflict if the situation is not managed carefully.


Along with West Papua, this is perhaps one the lesser-known of the current disputes. However, it’s also one that should be watched very closely. The dispute is centered on the central African country of Cameroon.

In 1884, Germany established a colony in the region that was then captured and divided between Britain and France during the First World War. The British held part was further divided into two administrative districts: the Northern and Southern Cameroons.

When the French-held territory became independent as the Republic of Cameroon, in 1960, the area under British rule held a referendum to decide its future.

While the northern part decided to unite with neighboring Nigeria, the Southern Cameroons opted to merge with Cameroon. This occurred on 1 October 1961 to form the Federal Republic of Cameroon.

As is so often the case in these situations, the union proved to be unhappy and in 1972 the federation was abandoned in favor of a unitary state. In the decades that followed, resentment grew in the Anglophone region.

And in late 2016 protests broke out that led to a harsh crackdown by the central government. On 1 October 2017, political forces in the region declared independence as the Republic of Ambazonia.

In response, the government launched a military campaign to reassert control. Since then, it’s estimated that the ensuing conflict has cost over 3,000 lives and displaced up to a million people.

While there have been efforts to broker talks between the sides, these have failed to produce any sign of a peace deal. In the meantime, this conflict, one of the most serious active armed disputes in Africa, if not the world, receives remarkably little international attention.


At one time, most of the attention on Spain was focused on the Basque Region. However, for the past decade, it’s Catalonia that’s taken the limelight.

The problem really came to the fore in June 2010, when the Spanish Supreme Court ruled that elements of a 2006 Spanish law granting greater autonomy to Catalonia, the country’s second-largest province, were unconstitutional.

This then prompted mass demonstrations. In the years that followed, support for a vote on independence grew. Following an election in 2015, the Catalan leadership organized a referendum on independence on 1 October 2017.

Despite strong opposition from the Spanish government, 43% of the electorate turned out to vote. Of this, 93% supported independence. 10 days later, on 10 October, the President of Catalonia declared that Catalonia was independent – but immediately put the declaration on hold pending talks with Spain.

After Madrid refused discussions, the Catalan parliament unilaterally declared independence on 27 October 2017. In response, the Spanish Government immediately suspended Catalonia’s autonomy and imposed direct rule.

Within days, the effort to secede collapsed, and, in October 2019, nine leaders of the attempted secession were jailed for 9-13 years for their role in the attempt to break away.

While a strong strand of pro-independent sentiment remains in Catalonia, it’s hard to see how Spain will permit a formal referendum on the issue any time soon.