Recognition of a Statehood, the law & the practice: The case of Ethiopia and Somaliland

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The question of statehood in international law is both complex and significant, involving a blend of legal criteria and political considerations. Statehood is a crucial concept that underpins the rights and obligations of entities on the global stage, shaping their capacity to participate in international relations.

Somaliland, a self-declared independent region in the Horn of Africa, presents a compelling case for examination. Despite meeting the traditional criteria for statehood—such as having a permanent population, a defined territory, an effective government, and the ability to engage in international relations—Somaliland’s quest for widespread recognition remains unfulfilled. Thus, it is crucial to delve into the conditions required for statehood under international law, the role of recognition by other states, and the implications of such recognition, using Somaliland as a focal point.

What is a State under International Law?

States are pivotal subjects of international law and key actors in international relations. Legally and politically, a state must possess certain characteristics, as defined by the Montevideo Convention. These include a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. The concept of statehood is fundamental in international law, establishing the rights and obligations of states in their interactions.

Recognition of statehood by other states, despite fulfilling the Montevideo Convention criteria, is crucial for establishing a state’s legal personality in international relations. Recognized states gain certain rights, such as sovereignty, which includes exclusive authority over internal affairs and the ability to enter into international agreements. Additionally, recognized states are obligated to respect the rights of other states.

An entity that meets the characteristics of a state cannot invoke sovereignty in handling its international relations and internal affairs unless it secures recognition from the international community.

Within the United Nations (UN) context, the UN does not have the authority to confer statehood. Recognition of statehood remains a political decision made by individual states based on their assessments and national interests. The UN can only admit states as members if they are recognized by a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly, following a unanimous recommendation by the Security Council.

Criteria to Assume Statehood

Four criteria generally determine whether an entity can be considered a state and assume statehood. Firstly, a state must have a permanent population, which means a group of people residing within its territory who maintain a sufficient degree of permanence. This population should exhibit stability and continuity rather than being transient or temporary. Secondly, a state must have a clearly defined territory over which it exercises effective control. The territory can vary in size but must be clearly delimited and identifiable.

Third, a state must have a functioning government that exercises effective control and authority over its population and territory. This government should have the capacity to make and enforce laws, provide public services, and represent the state in international relations.

And lastly, a state must possess the capacity to enter into legal relations with other states. This includes the ability to negotiate and conclude international agreements, establish diplomatic relations, and engage in diplomatic exchanges.

Applying the aforementioned criteria of statehood to the case of Somaliland, it becomes evident that it satisfies the requirements.

Somaliland possesses a permanent population of 5.7 million residents, as confirmed by the 2021 census, and its territory is well-defined, spanning an area of 176,120 square kilometers (68,000 sq mi). Moreover, Somaliland has an effective government that exercises control over both its population and territory, and has demonstrated its capacity to establish diplomatic relations with other states, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Djibouti, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Ghana. Consequently, it can be concluded that Somaliland meets the criteria to be considered a state under international law.

However, while these criteria are generally accepted, the recognition of statehood by other states plays a significant role in determining whether an entity is considered a state under international law. The Convention emphasizes that recognition of statehood is a political rather than a legal act, stating that recognition by other states is not a prerequisite for statehood. Nonetheless, widespread recognition by the international community is generally considered a crucial factor in determining statehood.

What is recognition of a State under International Law?

Recognition refers to the acknowledgment by other states or the international community that a particular entity meets the criteria for statehood and is therefore considered a sovereign and independent state. It is a political act by which states express their willingness to accept the legal personality and rights of the newly emerging or newly reconstituted state.

Recognition can be either explicit or implicit. Explicit recognition occurs when a state formally and overtly declares its recognition of another entity as a state, often through diplomatic channels such as the exchange of diplomatic notes or the establishment of formal diplomatic relations. Implicit recognition, on the other hand, occurs when a state engages in consistent and substantive interactions with the emerging state and treats it as a state in practice, even without an explicit declaration of recognition. Here, the nature of the relations is comparable to that of relations between two internationally recognized states.

Regarding the type of recognition bestowed upon Somaliland, it has engaged in interactions with various states. These interactions imply that these states have granted tacit recognition to Somaliland.

In the case of Ethiopia, the country already maintains relations with Somaliland, as demonstrated by the 2018 agreement between Ethiopia and Somaliland pertaining to a 19 percent stake in the port of Berbera. Furthermore, there are established air travel connections between Addis Ababa and Hargessa. These instances signify that Ethiopia has already recognized Somaliland implicitly, and the current tension with the Republic of Somalia, can be viewed as a political dispute aimed at avoiding express (official) recognition.

Effects of recognizing a State by one country?

The recognition (express or implied) of a state by one country can have several effects, including, the establishment of diplomatic relations between the recognizing state and the recognized state. This includes the exchange of ambassadors or diplomatic representatives, opening embassies or consulates, and engaging in official communication and dialogue.

Recognition also enhances the international legitimacy and standing of the recognized state. It signifies acceptance by the recognizing state and potentially by the international community, affirming the recognized state’s status as a sovereign, independent entity.

Another effect is that it enables the recognized state to enter into treaties and international agreements with the recognizing state and other states. This can include agreements on trade, defense, cultural exchange, investment, and other areas of mutual interest. Further, recognition may grant the recognized state access to participate in international organizations, such as the United Nations or regional organizations. Membership in these organizations allows the recognized state to engage in multilateral diplomacy, contribute to decision-making processes, and access various benefits and resources provided by these organizations.

Concerning economic and trade relation, recognition can lead to facilitating this relations that can lead to the establishment of bilateral trade agreements, investment opportunities, and the facilitation of economic cooperation and exchanges. Lastly, Recognition may have legal implications, such as the recognition of the recognized state’s national laws, jurisdiction, and legal acts by the recognizing state. It can also affect issues related to state succession, territorial claims, and the recognition of international boundaries.

Unilateral recognition of statehood and its implications

The act of unilaterally recognizing a state by a country carries significant implications. Unilateral recognition occurs when a state independently declares its recognition of an entity as a state without the consent or agreement of other states.

In the realm of international politics, there is no legal obligation for consensus or approval from other states to extend recognition. Each state possesses the sovereign right to decide whether and when to recognize a particular entity as a state. It is a discretionary act, granting states the freedom to decide whether and when to extend recognition.

Various reasons can prompt unilateral recognition, including political considerations, strategic interests, or humanitarian concerns, but the timing and extent of recognition can vary, and different states may hold different positions regarding the recognition of the same entity.

In the context of Ethiopia and Somaliland, Ethiopia seems inclined to grant unilateral recognition to Somaliland, disregarding opposition from other states, regional entities, and continental organizations. It is vital for Ethiopia to carefully consider its national interests from economic, security, political, and diplomatic perspectives before extending recognition, despite the decision lying within its discretion.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that unilateral recognition does not automatically confer statehood upon the recognized entity. The determination of statehood primarily hinges on meeting the objective criteria outlined in international law, such as those outlined in the Convention.

Unilateral recognition by one state does not impose an obligation on other states to recognize the entity, nor does it establish the entity’s legal status under international law. While it serves as a political statement, it does not carry the same legal and practical consequences as recognition by a substantial number of states or widespread international acceptance.

Recognizing an entity as a separate state for national interest can also give rise to controversy and diplomatic tensions, as it may be perceived as interference in the internal affairs of an existing state or as undermining the principle of territorial integrity, which is a fundamental tenet of international law.

In conclusion, Ethiopia must conduct a thorough assessment considering various factors and exercise due consideration before deciding whether to grant recognition to Somaliland. This assessment should encompass a careful evaluation of the political, economic, and security implications, as recognition could significantly impact regional dynamics and relationships for Ethiopia.

It is essential for Ethiopia to ensure that the recognition of Somaliland aligns with its interests, basing this decision on an in-depth analysis of the benefits and potential liabilities associated with the agreement. Ethiopia should also evaluate the general principles of international law and customary international law, which guide the recognition of statehood and the rights and obligations associated with it.

(Shimelash Wondale is an LLB, MA, LLM candidate. He can be reached @shiwondale@gmail.com)