What is a country?

Stephanie Routhier-Perry

This is a question that can be answered in a number of different ways, but for the purposes of the IDNA project, it was decided to include the 193 member nations of the UN, two non-member nations also recognized by the UN, and one country, Taiwan (the Republic of China which had membership from 1945 to 1971) that was expelled from the UN in 1971 when mainland China (the People’s Republic of China) was admitted

However, even with a working definition of “country” or “nation,” making decisions on what to include isn’t always easy. For example, I researched the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) for this project. The UK is made of up four constituent countries—England, Scotland, and Wales (“Great Britain”), and Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have devolved governments and meet many of the accepted criteria for independent nations, such as an internationally recognized boundary, people who live there on an ongoing basis, and an organized economy. However, they do not regulate their own foreign or domestic trade, and they cannot pass laws on “reserved issues” such as energy, common markets, and fiscal policy. Most importantly, the Parliament of the United Kingdom reigns over all constituent countries, which means that they do not have the full sovereignty required to be classified as an independent country. This is why only the UK as a whole is recognized as a country by the UN.

In terms of archives, the UK has one overarching institution for the whole country: The National Archives. The National Archives is also the national records centre for England and Wales, whereas Scotland and Northern Ireland have the National Records of Scotland (NRS) and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), respectively.

As well as being records centres, NRS and PRONI are considered “national” archives for their respective countries. They perform all of the traditional activities of a national archive, including keeping important texts and materials, advising on policy, publishing legislation and maintaining Crown Copyright, serving as a place of national deposit, and generally being a first port of call for researchers.

As noted, England doesn’t have its own separate archives, or records centre; its collections fall under the jurisdiction of the UK National Archives. Wales does have a national archival collection, but its archive is contained within the National Library of Wales, which has a similar mandate to NRS and PRONI, namely, to provide advice and support, as well as to develop policies, professional standards, and training for staff, researchers, volunteers, and other institutions. While it has a similar function, because it is a library and not an archival institution, it was decided that this is beyond the scope of this project.

However, even after making our decision to include NRS and PRONI, as well as the National Archives, we have perhaps raised more questions than answers: What about other nations that contain constituent countries or overseas territories? What about those that aren’t recognized as independent nations, but consider themselves as such, such as Kosovo? Or those people who are considered a nation, such as the Kurdish people, but who are stateless and have no recognized country to call home? And what about Canada, which has a territory like Quebec, considered a “nation” within Canada, but not an independent one?

In addition, with time, things change: borders are moved, countries are annexed and declare independence, and political decisions are made, such as the Brexit vote in June 2016, and Scotland’s unsuccessful vote to leave the UK in September 2014. These types of actions add to the confusion and ensure there are no easy answers; decisions will need to be made on a case-by-case basis.

What do you think? Should we have included PRONI and NRS? What about Taiwan? What other countries do you think should be considered for their own entry? Is there a better way to make this decision?

2 thoughts on “What is a country?

  1. The definition of statehood varies among individuals, governments, and international organizations, depending mostly on where in the world they are, and what political views they hold. Nations have formed, flourished, conquered- or became occupied- by another nation, or gradually disappeared due to ecological reasons throughout the history of earthlings. What’s important in my opinion, is to respect the international laws and treaties recognized by international organizations, such as UN. On a related note about the decision to whether include the PRONI and NRS in the UK Archives, I believe the right approach is to include all separate archival centers and entities under the country name recognized by the UN. You see, a country may be consisted of multiple nations with different ethnicity, or even different religions. Countries should not be granted sovereignty based on these factors. What’s makes these nations a Country is their strong belief in unity, and the decision should be left to them to choose to become united (and as a result, stronger), or to be divided (and more vulnerable). It is great to be and stay united. I just wish that would had been a respected choice, and a right for so many other divided countries since the start of the World War II, and even now. Promoting independence for ethnic groups within countries with different nations, aiding rebel groups who initiate sectarian and civil wars, doesn’t truly fit the description for advocating freedom and democracy.
    Faezeh 11/21/2016


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