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Opinion It’s time to recognize the problem with the international recognition of governments

Joshua Freedman is a PhD candidate in the department of political science at Northwestern University.

On Jan. 23, Canada joined the United States, Brazil, and 10 other Central and South American states in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido – in the words of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland – “as the interim President of Venezuela,” despite the inauguration of Nicolas Maduro, who claimed he won re-election. During this fluid situation, it is important to be clear about what this act of recognition means, and what it doesn’t.

Legal interventions of this sort are rare in global politics. Governments almost never lose their legal status in the international community, no matter how morally vacuous their policies may be, or how illegitimate their right to rule may seem. Diplomatic practice by and large follows the rule of effectiveness, where regimes are recognized internationally almost always on the basis of their ability to control, even if only through brutal force, the territory they claim to govern.

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Important exceptions to this practice exist, however. During the Cold War, the United States often wielded recognition as an ideological tool for picking winners and losers in foreign domestic contests, as it did when Washington refused to recognize communist governments in China and Angola. On rarer occasions, the international community has banded together to collectively withhold recognition from regimes deemed particularly depraved, as it did in the 1960s in response to Ian Smith’s white minority government in Rhodesia.

Canada’s own use of this practice is mixed. Ottawa initially joined Washington in withholding recognition from Mao Zedong’s government in China, but Pierre Trudeau eventually abandoned this policy of non-recognition in 1970, nine years before the United States would follow suit. In 1991, in response to a military coup ousting Haiti’s democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Mulroney government vowed not to recognize the military junta that took Mr. Aristide’s place. More recently, the Harper government adopted contrasting positions on whether to recognize the rebel movements that formed to oust Arab dictators in Libya and Syria, doing so for Libyan rebels in 2011, but not for Syrian rebels a year later.

The consequences of these legal and political manoeuvres were as mixed as their inconsistent application. While granting or withholding recognition can be a powerful tool for regulating international diplomacy, what matters far more than rhetorical acts of recognition themselves are the policies and actions they can help justify, and whether they clearly – or merely aspirationally – reflect conditions in the target country.

Governments that lose recognition, in simple terms, lose their ability and right to legally act on a state’s behalf. This can affect their standing in crucial international organizations, and their ability to access foreign assets registered in their state’s name. At the same time, a transfer of recognition from an incumbent regime to its opposition can legally empower the latter to request foreign military interventions to help bolster its stability. None of these impediments, however, automatically and irrevocably harm a regime’s ability to coercively hold onto its capital city. Indeed, we have seen unrecognized governments and states thrive before. As a major text on government non-recognition by University of Massachusetts Amherst political science professor M.J. Peterson makes clear: “In most cases the regime can get by.”

This is all the more true for the majority of cases where the international community unevenly withheld recognition from a targeted state. In Mr. Maduro’s case, any loss of assets and diplomatic access in the United States, Canada and Brazil can be partly mitigated through continued support from Venezuela’s diplomatic patrons in China and Russia. Both states have signalled their continued support for Mr. Maduro’s regime.

Finally, the political uses of recognition, and the legal consequences we tend to associate with these moves, rarely operate in concert. While foreign countries rushed to recognize a coalition of rebel forces during the early days of Syria’s civil war, the legal texts of these declarations were consciously narrow in their application. As international lawyer Stefan Talmon observed, the manner of recognition given at the time still left the legal status of Bashar al-Assad’s government intact, barring the rebels from accessing Syria’s diplomatic missions or assets abroad.

We will have a clearer sense of whether a similar disconnect will play out with Venezuela in the days and weeks ahead. As with most things, the strength and significance of Ms. Freeland’s statement depends on how Ottawa chooses to exercise it. This doesn’t mean that Canada’s decision to back Mr. Guaido, in this way, wasn’t worth doing, but it does mean that we should be realistic about what this kind of action is designed to achieve, while also remaining cognizant of the slippery slope that diplomatic interventions of this kind can produce.

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