Recognition Matters: Understanding the Importance of Acknowledging States in International Law

Story Highlights
  • What is Recognition?
  • Does Recognition Matter?
  • The Politics of Recognition

State recognition is an essential aspect of International Law. As with most other concepts in this field, it is not entirely defined, and there are specific theories for recognition functions. Understanding this concept may go a long way toward understanding the intricacies of international relations and law work.

What is Recognition?

Recognition is a formal act by a state to acknowledge the existence and government of another state. Above all else, it is the acceptance and announcement of diplomatic and possibly trade relations between states, formalizing a relationship from which treaties, contracts, and other matters of mutual gain may arise.

To be eligible for recognition, a body must have the characteristics of a state, which means that it must meet four criteria; it must have a defined territory, a permanent population, a government that exercises its power over that territory and population, and the sovereignty to conduct foreign relations.

Some theories suggest that recognition acts as the fifth requirement of a state, while others see it as merely a political decision to be made by these states.

Does Recognition Matter?

The role of recognition varies in international law based on whom one may ask. In reality, recognition holds no formal value, and as far as the law is concerned, a state becomes a state when it fulfills the four basic requirements of being a state.

The issue, however, arises when one considers that no state can survive alone in today’s political climate. There need to be relations among the states to survive, let alone thrive. These relations come in the form of diplomacy and trade. No state is entirely self-sufficient. Thus, it must partake in the sale and purchase of goods. Few states can defend themselves from the many threats they may face.

To fulfill these requirements, these states need to form relationships with other states, and how this is done is that a pre-existing state declares its recognition of another state and, in doing so, strengthens the other’s standing in the international arena while also showing a friendly gesture to the new state.

The Politics of Recognition

It may have become evident that recognition is, in essence, a political move. In its most basic explanation, a recognition by a state signifies either a show of support for the state that has been recognized or a show of hostility towards the state from which this new state emerged (because states can only emerge from preexisting states) or any other state involved. These situations may be present together in the same situation, or they may be present separately.

Take, for example, the recognition of Bangladesh by Bhutan. Bhutan was the first country to recognize Bangladesh, even before India, and its recognition can be seen as a show of support for Bangladesh or India.

The division of the USSR and the birth of the Central Asian states was followed by recognition being given to those states, and considering what a political superpower the USSR was, every step that any state took during these times was a perilous one, as there was Russia in one bloc and the US in the other, and for many, this was a time in which they had to decide which side they were on.

Apart from this, Pakistan’s decisions to recognize each of Afghanistan’s governments may have come not so much from the point of view of supporting or opposing anyone in particular; rather, it may be seen as an attempt to make peace with a precarious state that has remained the cause for many of Pakistan’s misfortunes.

To conclude, state recognition does hold great importance in the international community. The law may be somewhat quiet on this, and it may be for the best as the law and politics should be kept apart for the most part, but the effects that recognition has on international peace, stability, and prosperity have to be considered, and thus it is a concept very much discussed in international law.

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