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In the lead essay in this symposium, Professor Erika de Wet contends that notwithstanding all of the post-Cold War enthusiasm for a right to democratic governance and the non-recognition of governments resulting from coups and unconstitutional changes of government, a customary international law norm on the nonrecognition of governments established anti-democratically has not emerged. De Wet’s position, primarily based on state practice in Africa, is vigorously debated by six commentators.
Jure Vidmar agrees with de Wet that the representative legitimacy of governments still lies primarily in effective control over the territory of the state. Vidmar, in his contribution, examines recent collective practice when neither the incumbent government nor the insurgents control the territory exclusively, arguing that in such cases states may apply human rights considerations. Like de Wet, however, Vidmar regards state practice as ambivalent and unamenable to ideal-type distinctions between coups (against a democratically legitimate government) and regime changes (to a democratically legitimate government).
In the 1990s, international legal scholarship was marked by democratic idealism and the belief that democracy had become the only legitimate political system. The more radical proposals even speculated about legality of pro-democratic intervention. Such re-conceptualizations of international law were met with determined criticism. However, even skeptical voices were willing to admit that democracy nevertheless did have some limited normative force in post-Cold War international law. While it would be an exaggeration to say that nondemocratic governments are illegitimate per se, a consensus started to emerge that international law prohibited at least a coup against a democratic government. In the absence of a workable definition of substantive democracy for international law purposes, a democratic government was understood as an authority which comes to power in an electoral process that is reasonably free and fair.
Erika de Wet has provided a useful and balanced assessment of the current state of the international law of governmental illegitimacy. Her account quite rightly concludes that “democratic legitimacy is not yet a requirement for the recognition of a de jure government under customary international law.” What follows below seeks to expand on her observations in two ways: by developing somewhat further the doctrinal linkages to which she alludes; and by explaining the failure of a consistently legitimist state practice to materialize, in light of the dynamics of the legal order within which the question of governmental illegitimacy is embedded.
Recognition is a formal expression by its author about how she perceives the situation to which recognition is extended. Recognition simultaneously constitutes a means for its author to make known her own view of a situation, including the legal consequences, if any, that the author attributes to the situation, and on which the author intends to base her policy. Albeit a political act, recognition deeply affects the international legal system and carries wide-ranging legal effects in both the international and domestic legal orders, especially when it comes to the recognition of states and governments.
Erika de Wet argues that state practice reveals that democratic legitimacy has not established itself alongside effective control for the purpose of recognition of governments in customary international law. My response is that we do not need to look to custom, difficult as it is to identify, when we have legally binding obligations such as those set forth in both the OAS Charter and the Inter-American Democratic Charter (IADC), not to mention the comparable European and African instruments. The new gold standard for recognition, I submit, is democratic legitimacy and respect for human rights, which has replaced “effective control.”