The Return of the Emoji: Flags, Emoji, and State Recognition

by Chris Borgen

I thought I had largely said what I had to say concerning emojis and international law in my previous post. SRSLY. šŸ˜‰

But then John Louth, who knows of my interest in issues of recognition and non-recognition of aspirant states, pointed out this article from Wired which discusses, among other things, the issue of which national flags are awarded emoji and which are not. So let us return to the emoji for another post.

Consider the following passage for the Wired article:

…the most contentious emoji arena isnā€™t food, or even religion. Itā€™s flags. From October 2010 until April 2015, there were a limited number of flag emoji, including the Israeli flagā€”but notably, no Palestinian flag. When the Palestinian flag was addedā€”along with some 200Ā other flag emojiā€”it was cause for celebration.

Palestine exists in an unusual limbo in international law. It is recognized by some countries as Palestine, and by others as the Palestinian Territories.

ā€œTechnology has been used as a weapon to revolutionize the Middle East, and now it is being used as a weapon to legitimize Palestine,ā€ wrote Palestinian columnist Yara al-Wazir at Al Arabiya earlier this year. ā€œIntroducing the Palestinian flag as an emoji is more than just a symbolic gesture.ā€

The article then goes on to note that some national groups, such as the Kurds, do not have flag emojis.

So, how does the Unicode Consortium, a non-state actor, decide whether to assign a symbol for the flag of an entity claiming to be a state, especially if that statehood is contested? (For more on the Unicode Consortium, please see my previous post.) The Consortiumā€™s FAQ explains the criteria:

The Unicode Standard encodes a set of regional indicator symbols. These can be used in pairs to represent any territory that has a Unicode region subtag as defined by CLDR [Common Locale Data Repository], such as ā€œDEā€ for Germany. The pairs are typically displayed as national flags: there are currently 257 such combinations. For more information, see Annex B: Flags in UTR #51.

In other words, the Consortiumā€™s regional indicator symbols are based on the International Organization for Standardizationā€™s (ISO’s) two-letter country codes.

As described on its own website, the ISO is:

an independent, non-governmental organization made up of members from the national standards bodies of 162 countries. Our members play a vital role in how we operate, meeting once a year for a General Assembly that decides our strategic objectives.

Our Central Secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland, coordinates the system and runs day-to-day operations, overseen by the Secretary General.

It also describes itself as a network of national standardā€“setting bodies.Ā  With its combination of a permanent secretariat as well as a bureaucratic network, the ISO has aspects of both an intergovernmental network and an international organization.Ā  (See more on ISO governance, here.)

To receive a top-level country code from the ISO, an entity must be: (a) a United Nations member state, (b) a member of a UN specialized agency, or (c) a party to the Statute of the International Court of Justice.

Thus, the Unicode Consortium’s decision-making process to decide whether or not to assign a glyph for a country flag is based on the decision by the ISO, an organization with significant national government involvement, on whether or not a territory receives a country-code. The ISO’s decision is itself reliant on the aspirant entity’s relationship to the United Nations.

In short, the ISO has a two-letter designator for Palestine (see, for example, this ISO newsletter [.pdf]), so the Consortium by its own rules can (though does not have to) assign a code for the flag of Palestine. No ISO code for a Kurd state; no Kurdish flag emoji. And all of these stem from degrees of relationship of these entities to the UN.

In sum, a non-state consortium is basing its decisions on a state-based regulatory network (the ISO), which in turn is using criteria based on an intergovernmental organization (the UN). The result in the case of flag emojis is that the Consortium unlikely to assign a flag where theĀ  ISO is not willing to assign a separate country code, and ISO will not assign such a code without first looking to UN practice.

Receiving a flag emoji is not the recognition of a state by another state or even by an interstate organization. Nonetheless there are many hurdles to the designation of a flag emoji. Given the significant state interest in issues of recognition, explicit or implied, this is not surprising.

And if readers find other interesting overlaps of the Unicode Consortium, emojis, and international law, please let me know!

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