How many countries are there and what makes a nation? | World| Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 05.06.2010
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How many countries are there and what makes a nation?

World football's governing body FIFA has 208 member countries, the UN has 192 members. But how many countries are there really and what defines a nation?


How many nations in the world? No one can say for sure

It’s a question that could spark a heated debate in a pub quiz, but even the UN can not pinpoint how many countries there were in the world.

"It is not within the UN's jurisdiction to decide that. The UN can merely decide whom it accepts as a member in the organisation," Corinne Momal-Vanian of the United Nation's Information Service in Geneva told Deutsche Welle.

In theory, it is easy to apply to the UN, the official said. "A state applies for membership and declares that it will adhere to the basic rules of the UN Charter. The Security Council examines the application and writes a recommendation. In the end, the General Assembly makes the decision."

No candidate stands a chance, however, unless the five permanent members of the Security Council agree. The last country to gain entry into the UN was Montenegro in 2006 -- bringing the total number to 192 member states.

statue of hand gripping counry map

Somaliland : independent, but not internationally recognized

A territory, a population and a government

According to the Montevideo Convention, which in 1933 set out the rules for defining a state, there are 203 nations worldwide. But that figure should be taken with a pinch of salt, said Momal-Vanian.

"Every student of international law knows about the Montevideo Convention, which says a country must fulfil four criteria for it to be a state: it must have a territory, a population, a government and the ability to enter into a relationship with other states."

The Convention doesn't say what nations this applies to, Momal-Vanian said, but pointed out that lists of countries are often created based on the text of the Convention.

The difference between 192 UN member states on the one hand and 203 or maybe even more on the other is politically explosive: Taiwan, Kosovo, Palestine, Somaliland, Western Sahara, Northern Iraq and Northern Cyprus – every one of those names stands for an unsolved political conflict. And all of these 'geographic entities' have at some point unilaterally declared their independence.

Marcelo Kohen, professor for International Law at the Graduate Institute, Geneva, said the international community was sceptical about these secessionist territories.

"You have many secessionist movements around the world, and they can proclaim independence, but this is nothing but words," he said.

Olympic Rings

There are 205 national Olympic Committees

Numbering the world’s countries

Countries who are not UN member nations can boost their international profile by building up an Olympic team, or a national soccer team -- that's why the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA) has its 208 members, and there are 205 national Olympic Committees.

The International Organisation for Standardization has come up with a pragmatic solution to the many geographic entities: ISO 3166/1, a list of country names by two-digit codes. DE, for instance, stands for Germany.

"Currently, there are 246 official entries," said Gerard Lang, who maintains the list in Paris. "193 of those are independent states, the remaining 53 refer to areas of geopolitical interest."

The ISO code makes it easy to identify internet addresses and bank accounts with an IBAN-format all over the world. Palestine has a code, and so does Western Sahara.

There is still plenty of room for more entries. "Only half of all the possible combinations have been assigned so far," said Gerard Lang.

Author: Claudia Witte (db)
Editor: Rob Turner

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