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A number of polities have declared independence and sought diplomatic recognition from the international community as sovereign states, but have not been universally recognised as such. These entities often have de facto control of their territory. A number of such entities have existed in the past.
There are two traditional theories used to indicate how a sovereign state comes into being. The declarative theory (codified in the 1933 Montevideo Convention) defines a state as a person in international law if it meets the following criteria:
- a defined territory
- a permanent population
- a government, and
- a capacity to enter into relations with other states.
According to the declarative theory, an entity's statehood is independent of its recognition by other states. By contrast, the constitutive theory defines a state as a person of international law only if it is recognised as such by other states that are already a member of the international community.
Quasi-states often reference either or both doctrines in order to legitimise their claims to statehood. There are, for example, entities which meet the declarative criteria (with de facto partial or complete control over their claimed territory, a government and a permanent population), but whose statehood is not recognised by any other states. Non-recognition is often a result of conflicts with other countries that claim those entities as integral parts of their territory. In other cases, two or more partially recognised states may claim the same territorial area, with each of them de facto in control of a portion of it (as have been the cases of the Republic of China (ROC; commonly called "Taiwan") and the People's Republic of China (PRC), and North Korea and South Korea). Entities that are recognised by only a minority of the world's states usually reference the declarative doctrine to legitimise their claims.
In many situations, international non-recognition is influenced by the presence of a foreign military force in the territory of the contested entity, making the description of the country's de facto status problematic. The international community can judge this military presence too intrusive, reducing the entity to a puppet state where effective sovereignty is retained by the foreign power. Historical cases in this sense can be seen in Japanese-led Manchukuo or the German-created Slovak Republic and Independent State of Croatia before and during World War II. In the 1996 case Loizidou v. Turkey, the European Court of Human Rights judged Turkey for having exercised authority in the territory of Northern Cyprus.
There are also entities which do not have control over any territory or do not unequivocally meet the declarative criteria for statehood but have been recognised to exist as sovereign entities by at least one other state. Historically this has happened in the case of the Holy See (1870–1929); Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (during Soviet annexation); and Palestine at the time of its declaration of independence in 1988. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta is currently in this position. See list of governments in exile for unrecognised governments without control over the territory claimed.