What are Failed States and Do They Matter?

by Chiara Giorgetti

Failed and failing states are relatively new phenomenons that have not yet been recorded in the international law radar screen. However, the rise of piracy off the coast of Somalia, and increased instances of terrorism and international organized crime underline their relevance in the international legal system.

In my book, A Principled Approach to State Failure: International Community Actions in Emergency Situations, I study the theoretical importance and practical consequences of state failure. The aim of the book is to provide a viable, consistent approach for the international legal system to deal with state failure. My conclusions are supported by several case-studies, which include Somalia, health and environmental emergencies and actions taken by the international community to assist domestic populations in failing states.

State failure is best defined as the incapacity of a State to perform its obligations towards its citizens and towards the international community in general. Failed States are characterized by an implosion of States’ structures, which results in the incapability of governmental authorities to perform their functions, including providing security, respecting the rule of law, exercising control, supplying education and health services, and maintaining economic and structural infrastructures. In fact, a failed State is unable to provide political goods to its citizens and to the international community. These goods include security, border control, a political structure, physical infrastructures, a judicial system, education and health-care, and commercial and banking systems.

State failure is multi-formed and can be depicted as a continuum, as the State becomes progressively less capable of performing its functions and becomes more and more ‘failed.’ Complete State collapse is the ultimate, and rare, result, while different stages of State failure can be encountered along the continuum.

State failure implies the possibility that a State cannot – rather than does not – perform its functions, even after its statehood is recognized. Legally, State failure epitomizes a fallacy in international law, as failed and failing States continue to be considered fully fledged sovereign and are required to fulfill their many obligations towards other States and the international community in general. In fact, while international law carefully considers the creation and dissolution of States, it has not recognized their evolution while in existence. States can gain statehood quite easily, but there is no method to assess changes in the constitutive elements of a State, and thus adjust the standing and responsibilities of States when they start to fail.

This is unsatisfactory because it demonstrates that the defining elements of statehood, the pillar of international law, provide only a very limited elucidation of what constitutes a State.

It is also inadequate because State failure has profound consequences for domestic populations and the international community in general. When States fail, people suffer and the international community is put at risk. I think that it is fundamental for international law to address the problems that failing and failed States pose.

I look forward to exchanging views on this issue in the coming days.


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