Pontus Marine

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Somaliland - International Law is central to any decision concerning recognition

By Mark T. Jones - To raise one's head above the parapet in the debate concerning the international recognition of Somaliland is certain to invite criticism.  For all the opprobrium that may come one's way, it is still important that the subject be discussed and examined afresh.

For many maintaining the status quo is the preferred option, either because they see Somaliland as a province of the Federal Republic of Somalia, or because they fear that recognition might embolden secessionist movements across Africa and further afield. As ever context is king, and it is important to appreciate the role that history has played in framing this emotive issue.

On 1st July 1960 Somaliland (formerly British Somaliland) voluntarily formed a union with the Italian administered Trust Territory of Somaliland (formerly Italian Somaliland) which henceforth became known as Somalia. It is important to note that the British Somaliland was never a colony,  but had been a protectorate, and officially became independent on 26th June 1960, thus crucially it had been a sovereign state prior to its merger with its southern neighbour.  After a few years the initial optimism faded and following the 1969 coup the Union soured to such an extent that eventually civil war ensued.  Soon President Mohamed Siad Barre, or Jaalle Siyaad ("Comrade Siad") as he styled himself, began to wage a ruthless campaign of suppression against the tribes of the north (The Isaaq clan suffering the worst of it).  With the suppression verging on genocide the people of the former British Protectorate had had enough. Somalilanders had suffered grievously, with many thousands killed and over 90% of buildings in Hargeisa having been damaged or destroyed on the orders of the Barre Regime. As Somalia imploded Somaliland set about decoupling itself, and reasserting its sovereignty, so in 1991 it unilaterally declared independence from Somalia. For many Somalis this separation flies in the face of local irredentism and the  concept of a Greater Somalia (Soomaaliweyn), and as a consequence stirs up strong emotions. For all the emotion, it is important to examine the facts, more especially the legalities of Somaliland's quest and right to nationhood.


When it comes to state recognition, it is useful to reflect on rights, powers and duties. The people of Somaliland assert that they have a right to territorial integrity, and as such it is important to examine the legalities around nationhood. There is much to learn from perusing the Montevideo Convention (1933), it features the four criteria of statehood that are as follows: i) A permanent population ii) Defined territory (including land, sea and air iii) A functioning government with the powers of control, and  iv) The capacity to enter into legal relations with other states. When these criteria are examined objectively it soon becomes apparent that in this respect Somaliland has a strong case. The Federal Republic of Somalia such as it is would no doubt take exception to points ii), iii) and iv), especially point iv). As things stand Somaliland is a de facto state, with most if not all of the elements of one with de jure existence. Compared with Somalia it is better placed to protect its citizens and manifests a remarkable air of normality. That said, like the making of law, the recognition of a sovereign state is always highly political and an act that is certain to elicit strong emotions and polarised views.

At the current time many in the international community are reluctant to act in a manner that might be deemed precipitous. Diplomats invariably prefer to kick things into the long grass, for then the tough decisions will be taken by someone else. The African Union (AU) is especially wary of triggering similar and highly problematic claims. There is a very real anxiety that if Somaliland is officially recognised there will be a whole host of other 'states' clamouring for recognition. It is also important to remember that some powers have invested time, money and considerable amount of political  capital in endeavouring to bolster Somalia, and so it should come of little surprise that they are decidedly non-committal or even decidedly lukewarm when it comes to the notion of Somaliland's recognition. That said, there is a growing pragmatism that sees states forging cordial relations with the government in Hargeisa, and in some ways this points to eventual recognition. As things stand year on year commercial and cultural ties are growing.  If the legalities can be sorted out, and the indications are that they are, then it is more likely to be a question not of if, but when.

For the Somalis themselves this is an incendiary issue, passions soon become enflamed. In essence this is a family matter, and inevitably the family members have strong feelings. Occasionally  harsh words are spoken, and accusations of betrayal and disloyalty are banded about. In truth the shadows of history are long and dark, and those that have any conception of what Somaliland went through in the recent past are bound to claim that Somaliland's right to sovereignty deserves to be a considered a special case. Equally it is important not to marginalise Somalia.  It is essential that all parties are given a fair hearing, and what is more, are seen to be heard.  Ultimately International Law will play a decisive part, one that will generate a decision that needs to be respected if countries and communities are to learn to live side by side in peace and harmony.

Mark T. Jones

Twitter: @marktjones500
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