A Simple Proposal: A Principled Approach To State Failure

by Chiara Giorgetti

In the last couple of days I explained why I argue that State failure is a problematic phenomenon of contemporary international society which could endanger domestic population and the international community.

State failure is the prolonged implosion of governmental structures and the ensuing incapacity of the government to provide political goods to both internal and external actors. At the same time, State failure is better described as a phenomenon in evolution, which, in a graphical representation, is better visualized as a line, not a point. While complete State collapse is the final stage of the phenomenon, there are several stages that link complete failure to a fully functioning State, depending on the residual capacity of a State to fulfill its obligations. I believe that any approach to address crisis situations of State failure and fragility must take into consideration these differences.

I suggest that the adoption of a set of recognized, common and agreed principles could be useful in guiding actions by the international community in situations of State failure and fragility.  These principles would ensure the lawfulness and consistency of planned interventions to assist in fulfilling State actions. These principles should be based on the assessment of the risks that the international community would suffer in case of inaction. Risks should be valued in terms of lower and higher threats to the security of the international community, urgency to act in terms of immediacy of the threat, availability of alternative responses and in terms of the consequences at home and abroad for action and inaction.

In graphic form, assistance by the international community in situations of state failure and fragility should therefore be guided by, on one axis, the particular condition of fragility in which a State is found and, on the other, the risk and danger to the international community that would result from lack of action. Competent agencies of the United Nations or NGOs in the field may be mandated with routine and low-impact actions, such as monitoring and reporting. For example, specific international actors in loco could be mandated to perform specific actions. For example, in the case of Somalia, UN bodies, like the Food and Agriculture Organization or WHO, could be given the power to certify public health requirements or monitor and report health emergencies. More complex situation would require a higher level of threat. Thus, more complex actions, including the maintenance of air space and boundary security, would also require a higher level of consent and decision-making ability. For example, the United Nations Development Program and the International Civil Aviation Organization have been tasked to manage the airspace of Somalia. Actions to deal with the most urgent and highest levels of threat to the peace and security of the international community could only be done with the approval of the United Nations Security Council (like in fight against piracy off the coast of Somalia) or by an a representative committee created for that purpose.

I am not advocating for a return to protectorate or trusteeship, far from that. I suggest that state failure and fragility require a common and agreed action plan that can be implemented when needed. While at hoc arrangements have been found, I believe it is important to have a systematic approach to the risks that may derive from the non-performance of certain actions.

These principles would not violate national sovereignty. In fact, the tension between the duty of non-intervention identified in Article 2 of the UN Charter and the necessity to fulfill international obligations is only potential. It does not need to surface if the meaning of intervention is rightly considered. The issue of “intervention” in a territory of a State that is unable to perform international obligation must be assessed within the interests of other States in reducing threats to security, as it is now defined. Thus, the principle of non-intervention in internal affairs is limited in this context because it needs to be balanced with the general interest of States in upholding peace and security and enforcing international law. Moreover, it also needs to be qualified by the existing duty of cooperation and of interaction that exists in the international community. Actions taken to fulfill international obligations in fragile and failed States could be framed as included in this exception.

What I suggest is a  series of principles that would ensure a temporal, multilateral and consistent approach to the challenges that failing and failed states pose.


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