Recognition of a State under International Law

The Case of Ethiopia and Somaliland

A State under International Law

States are significant subjects of international law and actors in international relations. Under international law, a state is a legal and political entity with some characteristics. What constitutes a state under international law is defined by the Montevideo Convention. The convention outlines a permanent population, defined territory, government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states as the definition of a state. The concept of statehood is a fundamental principle in international law, as it establishes the rights and obligations of states in their interactions with one another. Hence, an entity must meet the above criteria to be recognized as a state.

Despite the fulfilment of the above parameters to assume statehood, recognition of statehood by other states is an essential aspect of establishing a state’s legal personality in international relations. Once recognized as a state, the entity is entitled to certain rights, such as sovereignty, which entails exclusive authority over its internal affairs and the ability to enter into international agreements. States also must respect the rights of other states.

Despite the above definition of statehood, an entity with a state’s characteristics can only invoke sovereignty to handle its relations with other states and its internal affairs if it secures recognition of statehood by the international community of states. Under the United Nations (UN) context, the UN does not have the authority to confer statehood as the recognition of statehood is a political decision made by individual states based on their assessment of the situation and their national interests. The UN can only admit states as members if they are recognized as states by a two-thirds majority of the UN General Assembly upon recommendation by the Security Council.

The central theme of the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, adopted in 1933, is the definition and criteria for statehood. The convention sought to establish a framework for determining states’ legal status and rights and obligations under international law.

International agreements are formal agreements between two or more states or global organizations. The participating parties negotiate and voluntarily enter these agreements, establishing binding obligations and rights under international law.

Criteria for Statehood

In the realm of international law, there are generally four criteria that an entity must meet to be considered a state and assume statehood, as listed above:

Permanent population: A state must have people who reside within its territory and maintain sufficient permanence. The population should have stability and continuity.

Defined territory: A state must have a clearly defined territory to exercise effective control. The territory can be of any size but must be delimited and identifiable.

Government: A state must have a functioning government that exercises effective control and authority over its population and territory. The government should be able to make and enforce laws, provide public services, and represent the state in international relations.

Capacity to enter into relations with other states: A state must possess the capacity to enter into legal relations with other states. This includes negotiating and concluding international agreements, establishing diplomatic relations, and engaging in diplomatic exchanges.

Applying the criteria of statehood mentioned above to the case of Somaliland, it becomes evident that it satisfies the requirements. It possesses a permanent population of 5.7 million residents, as confirmed by the 2021 census, and its territory is well-defined, spanning an area of 176,120 square kilometres. Moreover, Somaliland has an effective government that controls its population and territory. It has also demonstrated its capacity to establish diplomatic relations with other states, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Djibouti, and Ethiopia. Consequently, Somaliland meets the criteria to be considered a state under international law.

However, it is essential to note that while these criteria are generally accepted, the recognition of statehood by other states plays a significant role in determining whether an entity is considered a state under international law. The Montevideo Convention emphasises that the recognition of statehood is a political rather than a legal act, and it states that the recognition of a state by other states is not a prerequisite for statehood. However, widespread recognition by the international community is generally considered a crucial factor in determining statehood.

Recognition of a State under International Law

Recognition refers to the acknowledgement by other states or the international community that a particular entity meets the criteria for statehood and is, therefore, considered a sovereign and independent state. In other words, recognition is a political act by which states express their willingness to accept the legal personality and rights of the newly emerging or reconstituted state. Hence, recognition is not a legal requirement for statehood, as statehood considers meeting the objective criteria outlined in the Montevideo convention.

Recognition can be either explicit or implicit. Explicit recognition occurs when a state formally and overtly recognises another entity as a state. It goes through diplomatic channels, such as exchanging diplomatic notes or establishing formal diplomatic relations. Implicit recognition, on the other hand, occurs when a state engages in consistent and substantive interactions with the emerging state and treats it as a state in practice, even without an explicit declaration of recognition. Here, the nature of the relations is comparable to that of the relations between two states recognised on the international stage.

Regarding the type of recognition bestowed upon Somaliland, it has interacted with various states, including the United Arab Emirates and Djibouti. These interactions imply that these states have granted tacit recognition to Somaliland. In the case of Ethiopia, the country already maintains relations with Somaliland, as demonstrated by the 2018 agreement between Ethiopia and Somaliland about a 19% stake in the port of Berbera. Furthermore, there are air travel connections between Addis Ababa and Hargeysa. These instances signify that Ethiopia has already recognised Somaliland impliedly, and the current tension between the two countries, on the one hand, and the Republic of Somalia, on the other hand, can be viewed as a political dispute aimed at avoiding express recognition.

Effect of Recognising a State

Establishing diplomatic relations: Recognition often leads to establishing diplomatic relations between the recognised and recognised states. It includes the exchange of ambassadors or diplomatic representatives, opening embassies or consulates, and engaging in official communication and dialogue.

Legitimacy and international standing: Recognition enhances the international legitimacy and standing of the recognised state. It signifies acceptance by the recognised state and potentially by the global community, affirming its status as a sovereign, independent entity.

Treaty relations and international agreements: Recognition enables the recognised state to enter into treaties and agreements with the recognised state and other states. It includes agreements on trade, defence, cultural exchange, investment, and other areas of mutual interest.

Participation in International Organisations: Recognition may grant the recognised state access to participate in global organisations, such as the United Nations or regional organisations. Membership in these organisations allows the recognised state to engage in multilateral diplomacy, contribute to decision-making processes, and access various benefits and resources.

Economic and trade relations: Recognition can facilitate economic and trade ties between the recognising and recognised states. It can lead to establishing bilateral trade agreements and investment opportunities and promoting economic cooperation and exchanges.

Legal implications: Recognition may have legal implications, such as recognising the recognised state’s national laws, jurisdiction, and legal acts by the recognised state. It can also affect issues related to state succession, territorial claims, and the recognition of international boundaries.

Unilateral Recognition of a State and its Implications

A country can recognise an entity as a state unilaterally. Unilateral recognition occurs when a state independently and without the consent or agreement of other states declares its recognition of an entity as a state.

As recognition is a political act, there is no legal requirement for consensus or approval from other states to extend recognition. Therefore, each state has the sovereign right to decide whether and when to recognise a particular entity as a state. Unilateral recognition can occur for various reasons, such as political considerations, strategic interests, or humanitarian concerns.

In Ethiopia and Somaliland, Ethiopia appears inclined to grant unilateral recognition to Somaliland without requiring consensus from other states and despite much opposition from states and regional and continental organisations. It is, therefore, necessary that while the decision to recognise a state lies within the discretion of the recognising state, it is essential for Ethiopia to carefully consider its national interests from economic, security, political, and diplomatic perspectives when extending recognition.

However, it is essential to note that unilateral recognition does not automatically confer statehood on the recognised entity. Statehood is primarily determined by meeting the objective criteria outlined in international law (Montevideo convention). Besides, unilateral recognition by one state does not create an obligation for other states to recognise the entity as a state, nor does it necessarily establish the entity’s legal status under international law.

Recognising an entity as a state is a discretionary act, and states can decide whether and when to extend recognition to a particular entity. Political considerations, regional dynamics, and the existing policies and interests of recognising states can influence recognition. As a result, the timing and extent of recognition may vary, and different states may have other positions on identifying the same entity.

Recognising statehood by other states or the international community carries significant weight and has broader implications for the entity’s international standing, participation in global organisations, and diplomatic relations. While a political statement, unilateral recognition may have different legal and practical consequences than recognition by a significant number of states or widespread international acceptance.

States may recognise an entity as separate if it aligns with their national interest. Various factors, including geopolitical considerations, strategic alliances, economic interests, and humanitarian concerns, can drive this. However, the recognition of an entity as a separate state for national interest can also be a source of controversy and diplomatic tensions (like the one between Ethiopia and Somalia), for it may be perceived as interference in the internal affairs of the existing state or as undermining the principle of territorial integrity, which is a fundamental principle of international law.

Recognising an entity as a separate state for national interest is a complex and delicate matter that requires careful assessment of various factors, considering the specific circumstances and the potential consequences for regional stability, international relations, and the principles of international law.

Ethiopia must thoroughly assess various factors and give due consideration before deciding whether to grant recognition to Somaliland. This assessment should carefully evaluate political, economic, and security implications, as recognition could significantly impact Ethiopia’s regional dynamics and relationships. In essence, Ethiopia needs to ensure that the recognition of Somaliland aligns with its interests, and this decision should thoroughly analyse how interests are fulfilled through the agreement. To make a wise decision, Ethiopia must determine whether the benefits outweigh the potential liabilities and vice versa when considering the deal with Somaliland. Besides, Ethiopia should evaluate the principles of customary international law, which guide the recognition of statehood and its rights and obligations.


  • Shimelash Wondale

    Bachelor's degree in law graduate from Bahir Dar University and master's degree graduate in international relations and diplomacy from Addis Ababa University. He can be reached at

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  • Shimelash Wondale

    Bachelor's degree in law graduate from Bahir Dar University and master's degree graduate in international relations and diplomacy from Addis Ababa University. He can be reached at