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Understanding Recognition in International Law: States, Governments, and Types

Updated: Feb 4

Recognition in international law plays a crucial role in shaping the international community and establishing diplomatic relations between states. This process involves acknowledging the legitimacy of a new or existing state or government, thereby conferring certain rights and obligations upon them.





This article explores recognition in international law, focusing on the recognition of states, the different types of recognition, and the distinction between recognizing states and governments. By understanding these concepts, policymakers and practitioners can better navigate the complexities of international relations and diplomatic interactions.


Content of Blog

I. Recognition in International Law: An Overview

A. Definition and significance of recognition

B. Criteria for statehood in international law

C. The role of recognition in shaping international relations

II. Recognition of State in International Law

A. Declarative vs. Constitutive Theories of Statehood

B. Examples of state recognition (Bangladesh, Kosovo)

C. Consequences of state recognition (treaties, international organizations, diplomatic relations)

III. Types of Recognition in International Law

A. De facto vs. De jure Recognition

B. Unilateral vs. Collective Recognition

C. Explicit vs. Implicit Recognition

D. Conditional vs. Unconditional Recognition

IV. Recognition of State and Government in International Law

A. Distinction between recognition of states and governments

B. Examples of government recognition (Iran, Venezuela)

C. Jurist opinions on recognizing governments (effectiveness theory, legitimacy theory)

V. Conclusion




I. Recognition in International Law: An Overview

A. Definition and significance of recognition: Recognition in international law is a formal acknowledgment by existing states that an entity, such as a new or existing state or government, meets specific criteria and is considered a subject of international law.


This acknowledgment confers certain rights and obligations upon the recognized entity, such as the ability to enter into treaties, participate in international organizations, and enjoy diplomatic immunities and privileges.


B. Criteria for statehood in international law: The criteria for statehood in international law, as defined by the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, include a permanent population, a defined territory, an effective government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states.


C. The role of recognition in shaping international relations: Recognition is a key aspect of international relations, as it determines the legitimacy and status of states and governments in the global community.


II. Recognition of State in International Law

In international law, the recognition of a state involves acknowledging its sovereignty and territorial integrity, which usually occurs when a new state emerges through independence, secession, or dissolution of a former state.


A. Declarative vs. Constitutive Theories of Statehood:


Two prominent theories explain how a new state acquires international personality:

  • The declarative theory posits that an entity becomes a state when it fulfills the criteria for statehood, as defined by the Montevideo Convention: a permanent population, a defined territory, an effective government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. According to this theory, recognition by other states is merely an acknowledgment of an already existing fact, not a precondition for statehood.

  • The constitutive theory, on the other hand, asserts that an entity becomes a state only when it is recognized by other states. Recognition is a crucial step in the creation of a state, as it confers legitimacy and acceptance within the international community.

In practice, the distinction between these theories is often blurred, as both the fulfillment of statehood criteria and recognition by other states play a role in establishing an entity's status in international law.


Examples of state recognition include Bangladesh, which declared independence from Pakistan in 1971 and was eventually recognized by the international community, and Kosovo, which unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008 but remains only partially recognized by UN member states.


B. Consequences of state recognition:


Recognition has various implications for the recognized entity, including its ability to enter into treaties, participate in international organizations, and access international courts.


State recognition has significant consequences in international law, as it establishes the recognized entity's status as a subject of international law and grants it certain rights and obligations. Some of the consequences include:

  1. Treaty-making capacity: Recognized states gain the ability to enter into treaties and international agreements with other states, thus participating in the global legal framework.

  2. Diplomatic relations: Upon recognition, states can establish formal diplomatic relations with other countries, exchange ambassadors, and enjoy diplomatic privileges and immunities.

  3. Membership in international organizations: Recognized states can become members of international organizations such as the United Nations, World Bank, and World Trade Organization, providing them with a platform for multilateral cooperation and decision-making.

  4. Access to international courts: Recognition allows states to access international judicial and arbitral bodies, such as the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, to settle disputes and seek legal remedies.

Jurist opinions on the consequences of state recognition include the views of Hersch Lauterpacht, who emphasized the importance of recognition in establishing an entity's status in international law.


In the case of Kosovo, the International Court of Justice's advisory opinion in 2010 declared that Kosovo's declaration of independence did not violate international law, despite its partial recognition by UN member states. This opinion highlighted the significance of recognition in determining the legal status and consequences for a new state.


Overall, the consequences of state recognition are vital to integrating new states into the international legal system and allowing them to participate in global governance and diplomacy.


III. Types of Recognition in International Law

Recognition in international law can take several forms, depending on the degree of formality, the legal implications, and the process by which it is granted. Some types of recognition include:


A. De facto vs. De jure Recognition:


De facto and de jure recognition are two different forms of acknowledgment by one state of another state or government in the context of international law. They differ in the degree of formality and the legal implications they carry. Here's a breakdown of their differences:


De facto recognition:

  1. Informal acknowledgment: De facto recognition refers to the informal acceptance of a state or government by another state. This recognition does not involve a formal declaration or legal endorsement.

  2. Practical relations: De facto recognition usually occurs when a state engages in practical relations with the entity in question, such as trade or diplomatic communication, treating it as a legitimate state or government without an official statement.

  3. Provisional nature: De facto recognition often serves as a provisional acknowledgment before granting de jure recognition. It allows states to establish working relationships with the entity while reserving the right to withhold full, formal recognition.

  4. Limited legal implications: De facto recognition has limited legal implications compared to de jure recognition. While it allows for some interactions between states, it does not grant the same level of rights and privileges as de jure recognition, such as diplomatic immunities and access to international courts.

De jure recognition:

  1. Formal acknowledgment: De jure recognition is a formal, legal acknowledgment of a state or government by another state. This recognition is usually expressed through diplomatic statements, official communications, or resolutions.

  2. Legal endorsement: De jure recognition implies a legal endorsement of the entity in question, confirming its legitimacy and status as a subject of international law.

  3. Permanent nature: Unlike de facto recognition, de jure recognition is generally considered permanent, meaning that the recognizing state has fully accepted the entity as a legitimate state or government with no reservations.

  4. Full legal implications: De jure recognition carries significant legal implications for the recognized entity. It allows for the establishment of formal diplomatic relations, participation in international organizations, accession to international treaties, and access to international courts.

In summary, de facto recognition is an informal and provisional acknowledgment of a state or government that allows for practical relations but has limited legal implications. In contrast, de jure recognition is a formal and permanent acknowledgment that carries significant legal implications, fully accepting the entity as a subject of international law.

B. Unilateral vs. Collective Recognition:


Unilateral and collective recognition represent two approaches to acknowledging the legitimacy of new states or governments in international law.


  • Unilateral recognition: it occurs when individual states independently decide to recognize a new state or government. Each state evaluates the situation based on its own interests, criteria, and foreign policy objectives. Unilateral recognition can lead to a diverse range of international responses, as seen in the case of Taiwan, where some countries recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state, while others adhere to the "One China" policy and recognize the People's Republic of China as the sole legitimate government of China.


  • Collective recognition: It involves multiple states coordinating their recognition efforts, often through international organizations or multilateral agreements. Collective recognition ensures a unified international response, strengthening the legitimacy of the recognized entity. An example of collective recognition is the European Union's (EU) coordinated approach to recognizing the independence of Montenegro in 2006, where EU member states agreed on a common position and jointly recognized Montenegro as an independent state.


Jurist opinions on recognition vary, but many acknowledge the importance of a coordinated international response. Malcolm Shaw, a prominent international law scholar, suggests that collective recognition can be more effective in promoting stability and reducing the risk of conflicts arising from competing claims of legitimacy.


In summary, unilateral and collective recognition both play a role in shaping the international community's response to new states or governments, with collective recognition offering a more unified approach that can contribute to global stability and cooperation.


C. Explicit vs. Implicit Recognition:


Explicit and implicit recognition are two ways in which states acknowledge the legitimacy of new states or governments in international law.


  • Explicit recognition refers to a clear and formal expression of recognition by a state, often through diplomatic statements, official communications, or the exchange of ambassadors. This type of recognition leaves no ambiguity regarding the recognizing state's position on the legitimacy of the new state or government. For instance, when South Sudan gained independence in 2011, many countries explicitly recognized its statehood through official statements or resolutions.

  • Implicit recognition, on the other hand, occurs when a state's actions suggest recognition without an explicit declaration. Such actions may include signing treaties, engaging in trade, or establishing diplomatic relations with the new entity. While implicit recognition may not provide the same level of certainty as explicit recognition, it can still carry significant legal and political implications. In the case of Israel, some states have not explicitly recognized it but have engaged in various forms of cooperation, which can be interpreted as a form of implicit recognition.

Jurist opinions on explicit and implicit recognition often emphasize the importance of clarity and certainty in international relations. Ian Brownlie, a renowned international law scholar, argues that explicit recognition is more effective in confirming an entity's status in international law, as it leaves no room for ambiguity.


However, he acknowledges that implicit recognition can still have legal consequences, especially when a consistent pattern of recognition emerges.

In conclusion, both explicit and implicit recognition contribute to shaping the international community's response to new states or governments.


Explicit recognition provides a clear and certain stance, while implicit recognition offers a more nuanced approach, allowing states to navigate complex diplomatic situations.


D. Conditional vs. Unconditional Recognition:


Recognition can be granted unconditionally, without any stipulations, or conditionally, with specific requirements that must be met by the recognized entity, such as upholding human rights or implementing democratic reforms.


  • Conditional recognition is granted when a state imposes certain conditions or stipulations that the new state or government must fulfill before being recognized. These conditions may include implementing democratic reforms, respecting human rights, or adhering to international law. An example of conditional recognition is the European Union's (EU) recognition of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (later Serbia and Montenegro) in 2000, which was linked to the country's commitment to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and implement democratic reforms.

  • Unconditional recognition, on the other hand, is granted without any specific requirements or conditions. It is based on the recognizing state's belief that the new state or government meets the criteria for statehood or legitimacy. For instance, many countries recognized the independence of the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) from the Soviet Union in 1991 without imposing any conditions.

Jurist opinions on conditional and unconditional recognition vary. Some, like Hersch Lauterpacht, emphasize the importance of unconditional recognition to promote stability and avoid interference in the domestic affairs of other states. Others, such as Thomas Franck, argue that conditional recognition can be a useful tool for encouraging adherence to international norms and promoting democratic values.

In summary, conditional and unconditional recognition are different approaches to recognizing new states or governments, reflecting the recognizing state's assessment of the entity's legitimacy and its commitment to international norms and principles.

IV. Recognition of State and Government in International Law


A. Recognition of state


It implies acceptance of its territorial boundaries and sovereignty, while recognizing a new government means accepting its authority to represent the state in international relations. Recognizing a new state means acknowledging its sovereignty and territorial integrity. This usually happens when a new state emerges through independence, secession, or dissolution of a former state. Two notable cases are:


  1. Bangladesh (1971): Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan in 1971. While India immediately recognized the new state, many countries, including the United States and China, delayed their recognition until the end of the Bangladesh Liberation War. The international community eventually recognized Bangladesh, and it became a member of the United Nations in 1974.

  2. Kosovo (2008): Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Its statehood remains contentious, as some countries recognize it, while others, including Serbia, Russia, and China, do not. As of September 2021, 97 out of 193 UN member states had recognized Kosovo.

B. Recognition of Governments


Recognizing a new government entails accepting its authority to represent the state in international relations. This can occur when a government changes through elections, revolutions, or coups. Two illustrative cases are:

  1. Iran (1979): After the Islamic Revolution, the government of Iran changed from a monarchy to an Islamic republic. Many states recognized the new government, accepting its authority to represent Iran in international affairs.

  2. Venezuela (2019): The political crisis in Venezuela led to competing claims of leadership between President Nicolás Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaidó. Some countries, including the United States and several European and Latin American nations, recognized Guaidó as the interim president, while others, such as Russia and China, continued to support Maduro's government.

C. Effectiveness Theory v Legitimacy Theory

Jurist opinions on the criteria for recognizing governments differ. Some argue that recognition should be based on the effectiveness of their control, regardless of the government's legitimacy or the means by which it gained power (effectiveness theory). Others contend that recognition should be based on the government's adherence to principles of democracy and human rights (legitimacy theory).


Hersch Lauterpacht, an influential international lawyer, argued that recognition of governments should be based on their effectiveness, as it would be difficult to determine the legitimacy of every government. However, he also stated that recognition should be withheld from governments that come to power through aggression or egregious violations of international law.


Thomas Franck, another prominent jurist, emphasized the importance of democratic legitimacy in recognizing governments. According to Franck, recognition should be granted to governments that come to power through democratic means and uphold human rights standards.


V. Conclusion

Understanding the concept of recognition in international law, the different types of recognition, and the distinction between recognizing states and governments is vital for policymakers, practitioners, and students of international relations.


By acknowledging the legitimacy of a new state or government, existing states shape the international community and influence the rights and obligations of the recognized entities.


The recognition of states and governments has significant implications for international relations, including the ability to enter into treaties, participate in international organizations, and access international courts.


Various types of recognition, such as de facto and de jure recognition, offer different degrees of formality and legal implications, reflecting the complexities of international law and diplomacy.


Jurist opinions on recognizing governments highlight the importance of striking a balance between effectiveness and legitimacy in the recognition process.


By considering these factors, states can make informed decisions on recognizing new states and governments, contributing to the stability and development of the international community.

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