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

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Exploring the boundaries of international law

2.5 ‘Failed’ states

Traditionally, once a state becomes a state, it remains one even when there is a loss of control by the government and subsequent lack of law and order, with the possibility of anarchy. However, the concept of a ‘failed state’ has developed, although as yet, there is no accepted definition of what constitutes a failed state. Zartman describes it as referring ‘to a situation where the structure, authority (legitimate power), law, and political order have fallen apart’ (Zartman, 1995, p. 1).

Such states invariably exhibit a range of humanitarian, legal and security problems, such as civil wars, ethnic cleansing, mass migration, environmental degradation and pandemics. These states may have legal, but not actual sovereignty. The concept of state failure is not reserved for cases of complete state collapse into civil war or anarchy. It is a spectrum and arguably may include states that are weak and struggling to meet their responsibilities, such as Haiti, and, in the past, states such as Afghanistan and Sierra Leone. In many cases failed states can no longer control their territory and borders. Politically, they invariably lack legitimacy and accountability and fail to protect the basic rights and freedoms of their citizens. Economically, they are ineffectual and corrupt.

The failure of a state is likely to have a wider regional and international impact. Lawlessness is often not just confined within the boundaries of the failed state; transnational crimes such as drug smuggling, human trafficking and terrorism are able to flourish. In Somalia, a commonly cited example of a failed state, the lack of internal control allows piracy to flourish along the western seaboard of the Indian Ocean.

The international community has become increasingly concerned about the threat to global political and economic security and stability posed by the instability of failed states. International responses have been practical in the form of aid and, more controversially, in offers of reconstruction, which involves a degree of foreign intervention in the governance of the failed state. Humanitarian interventions have been legitimised in certain situations. In principle, however, the fact that a state has ‘failed’ is not a justification for disregarding the sovereignty of the state. It allows a limited international response, but then it risks failing to address the international ramifications of the failed state. For instance, an attack on the land bases of the Somalian pirates within Somalia by foreign forces risks breaching international law.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371