Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Does the process of state recognition need to be 'normalized'?

The 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States sets out the minimum requirements for statehood in international law: "a permanent population; a defined territory; government; and capacity to enter into relations with the other States." A prominent international lawyer has written that several of these criteria boil down to "the existence of effective government...." (Ian Brownlie, Principles of Public International Law, 4th ed., p.73).

Not surprisingly, the rather vague criteria of the Montevideo Convention have not always been applied consistently. In a 2002 article, "Sovereign Rights in International Relations: A Futile Search for Regulated or Regular State Behavior" (Review of International Studies, 28:4), Ersun Kurtulus pointed out that, for example, Chechnya in the 1990s had most of the empirical attributes of statehood but lacked the legal status of sovereignty, whereas Bosnia-Herzegovina was widely recognized as a sovereign state while (arguably) lacking the empirical attributes of statehood. Bosnia was hardly alone in that respect, of course. There is a well-known distinction in the Int'l Relations literature, introduced by Robert Jackson, between "juridical" and "empirical" sovereignty. To take an example: Somalia has juridical but not empirical sovereignty, whereas Somaliland, one could argue, has empirical but not juridical sovereignty. (On Somaliland, see, e.g., Peter Roethke, "The Right to Secede Under International Law: The Case of Somaliland," Journal of International Service, 20:2, Fall 2011.)

The above remarks are prompted by reading Courtney Brooks's article, "Making a State a State," in the current issue of World Policy Journal. Brooks, the UN correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, argues that there is a "need for a mechanism to normalize the process of international recognition of a state."  UN membership, which requires a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly, is perhaps the closest thing to an official stamp of recognition of statehood, but it isn't quite that, and moreover any one of the five permanent members of the Security Council can veto a membership application. 

Brooks contends that no one country should be able to veto a UN membership bid and that a way should be found to bypass the veto power, perhaps by reviving a 1950 SC resolution that was used to break a deadlock over the Korean War by giving "the General Assembly the power to overrule the Security Council in some instances...." The likelihood of this occurring, I would say, is minimal, but it's an interesting proposal.  
However, in terms of the way it's organized, the problem with Brooks's generally good article is that it begins with a discussion of Abkhazia, a region in the west of Georgia (see map here) that declared itself independent in 1999 but is recognized as an independent state only by Russia and four other countries. (The four are Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Tuvalu, the latter two being tiny island states in the Pacific.) 

Abkhazia is thus not a case of an entity that would benefit from a 'normalization' of the recognition procedure or a bypassing of the Security Council veto, since virtually no country wants to recognize it except Russia. Brooks quotes a Russian spokesman as saying "we encourage everybody to accept the new geopolitical reality in the South Caucasus. Two independent states, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, exist there alongside Georgia." This is Moscow's position and (with respect to Abkhazia at least) Venezuela's and Nicaragua's position, and Nauru's and Tuvalu's, all of whose positions have, as one might delicately put it, been influenced by Russian financial largesse. But the other 180-plus sovereign states in the world aren't buying this "new geopolitical reality."    

Accordingly, Brooks tacks on a coda proposing that residents of "disputed territories" like Abkhazia should have their rights to travel freely, for example, guaranteed by some mechanism, perhaps a revival of something like the UN Trusteeship Council. Again, I don't know whether this particular mechanism is the right one, but the basic idea of enhancing the rights of Abkhazians and others similarly situated seems reasonable.

Two other quibbles with the piece: it uses "state" and "nation" interchangeably, which I think should be avoided if possible, and it refers at one point to the "rigidity" of territorial boundaries in negative terms. In fact the rigidity of boundaries has some significant benefits as well as some costs; for further discussion, see, e.g., here.

P.s. Be sure to catch the very short poem quoted at the very end of Brooks's article.

Further reading: Mikulas Fabry, Recognizing States (Oxford U.P., 2010).

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