Exploring the boundaries of international law
Exploring the boundaries of international law

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Exploring the boundaries of international law

2.2 The recognition of a state

A state may meet the requirements of the Montevideo Convention, but in practice its existence needs to be politically accepted by other states. Recognition of a state by another state signifies that the recognising state accepts the other as having the capacities of statehood. Recognition is an executive act; it is a decision invariably based on political, economic and legal considerations.

Box 1 Acts of recognition

The act of recognition of a state may take different forms such as:

  • formal pronouncement
  • official letter to newly recognised entity
  • statement before national court of the recognising state
  • opening of diplomatic relations may infer recognition.

Recognition may occur in different circumstances; for instance, it may be recognition of:

  • independence from federal authorities, such as the recognition of the former republics of the Soviet Union and of Yugoslavia
  • the right of self-determination of that state – such as the recognition of Eritrea as an independent state from Ethiopia.

Recognition applies not just to states but to governments. It may be recognition of a new government that has come to power unconstitutionally or through a civil war. In these cases the exercise by the new government of effective control over the state’s territory is crucial. The failure to gain recognition may limit that state’s or government’s position in the international system. It will have difficulty becoming a member of international organisations and participating in international conferences.

Recognition is a discretionary act. Unanimity of recognition is not required. In practice the attitude of other states, especially politically powerful states, is crucial to the success of an emerging state. For instance, after the civil war in Pakistan in 1971, the newly formed People’s Republic of Bangladesh received widespread support and was quickly recognised as a state by the majority of the international community. In contrast, recognition of the Palestinian territories has been much more circumspect. So far, the USA, UK and many other European states have not recognised its existence as a state and its attempt to become a UN member state stalled in 2011. It is a controversial candidate for recognition of statehood, in contrast to Bangladesh, which became a member of the UN relatively quickly after recognition in 1974.

Recognition implies a willingness to deal with the government of that state as a lawful representative of that state. Recognition has the potential to be used as a political tool by governments to express their approval or disapproval of the emergence of the new entity or government. The practice of the USA and many European states is to recognise states but not governments; this allows states to establish relations with a new regime but not officially approve of it. For instance, prior to 2001 few states recognised the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan but the existence of the Afghan state was recognised.

Box 2 Degrees of recognition

Traditionally recognition may be:

  • De jure – is the fullest kind of recognition and provides uncontested legality to the state or government.
  • De facto – this recognises the factual existence of a state or government and the fact that the government exercises control over a territory. It is more tentative than de jure recognition; it suggests further enquiry into the stability of the state or government. For instance, following the Russian Revolution and the overthrow of the Tsars in 1917, the UK recognised the de facto existence of the Soviet Union in 1921, and de jure in 1924.
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