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

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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.

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