Spot the difference

Spot the difference

A look at the recognition of governments and rebel movements through recent US practice in Somalia and Syria

Within the space of one month, the US recognized the Syrian opposition coalition as ‘the legitimate representative of the Syrian people’ and granted recognition to the Somali government – what are the consequences of these decisions?

Somalia: more money, but not necessarily political exclusivity

On 17 January, the United States announced its decision to recognize the Somali government for the first time in more than twenty years. There was a press conference, photos, smiles, handshakes – the usual. News coverage of the event conveyed a feeling of general optimism. The US is happy, the Somali government is happy, everybody’s happy. Well, almost. Within Somalia, the ‘semi-autonomous’ Puntland welcomed the decision; the self-declared ‘independent state’ of Somaliland did not.

But just what exactly does this one recognition mean? The most important practical consequence, highlighted almost invariably by news reports, is the possibility for the Somali government to receive further financial assistance not only from the US itself, but also through international financial institutions. That’s because the US sits on the Board of Directors of the IMF with a voting power of almost 17 percent, and on the Boards of various World Bank institutions with quotas ranging from a little over 10 percent to almost 23 – a significant influence in approving projects.

The political consequences of the recognition, however, remain unclear for the time being. The US does not yet plan on reopening an embassy in Mogadishu, although the long-term possibility was mentioned by Secretary Clinton at the press conference. Even more importantly, it’s also not quite clear whether the US will continue with its so-called ‘dual track policy’ of engaging with the central government on the one hand, and the regional – sometimes secessionist – administrations, such as Somaliland, on the other. When asked about the matter, Clinton gave an evasive answer; and some observers expect that the recognition will have little impact on the US approach to Somaliland.

Syria: political gesture, but no practical consequences

Mid-December, President Obama announced the recognition of the Syrian opposition coalition as ‘the legitimate representative of the Syrian people’. No press conference, photos, smiles or handshakes. (The announcement was made in a television interview.) No authorization of weapons supply, and no recognition of the right to conclude treaties or to dispose of state assets abroad, either.

In other words, the recognition amounted to little more than a political gesture intended to bolster the opposition coalition. As for financial assistance, that had already been agreed months before the recognition, through the ‘Friends of Syria’ group, which by now consists of about 130 states.

So what’s the conclusion?

Under international law, ‘recognition as government’ is not the same as ‘recognition as the legitimate representative of the people’ of a state: the latter grants a much narrower scope of rights than the former, however hypocritical that may sound. In essence, the status of ‘legitimate representative’ does not carry any sovereign rights with it, such as disposal over state assets abroad or accreditation of ambassadors.

But in these two cases, the distance seems to be smaller than usual. Although the recognition opened up new avenues for financial assistance for the Somali government, both Somalia’s security forces and the Syrian opposition had already received assistance in the range of tens of millions of dollars from the US before recognition (not counting humanitarian and development aid) – it was therefore not a prerequisite to such aid. What’s more, it seems that in neither case did the recognition result in political exclusivity in dealing with various representatives within a state.

Considering that recognition is discretionary – which sometimes just feels like a euphemism for ‘arbitrary’ – and subject to any given moment’s political considerations, it’s doubtful whether broader conclusions can be drawn from these examples. That being said, it is interesting to see that sometimes these categories may be closer than we think.


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