Full international recognition remains the elusive gold standard for aspirant states – it represents the maximum economic, political, and legal achievement for a polity. It is also the ultimate marker of legitimacy. Aspirant states lacking such recognition suffer on many fronts, ranging from the lack of voting power in the UN to non-participation in international sports competitions. Their precarious status also breeds anxiety related not only to their unclear role in the international system but their very identity as states, which would be confirmed by a formal recognition. This paper develops the growing body of literature arguing that since legal recognition is highly unlikely in most cases, aspirant states prioritise security-seeking. I draw on the concept of fundamental ontological security to argue that they are driven by the need to seek validation for their identity as (would-be) states through practices of claiming territory. The ability to do so and, in some cases, receive some international validation reaffirm their self-perception as “normal”, territorially delimited states, even if they do not result in tangible gains. I undertake an exploratory probe of the argument through an empirical study of Western Sahara, developed out of extensive journalistic fieldwork in Sahrawi refugee camps. I trace the process of Western Sahara’s lawsuits in the European Court of Justice that sought to confirm its claims to the territory currently occupied by Morocco and contextualise the document analysis through fieldwork observation from 2014 and 2016. The conclusions could inform better policies in relation to secessionist disputes and support a more just approach which does not dismiss aspirant states as destabilising transgressors.
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