The Last Recognition of Belligerency (and Some Thoughts on Why You May Not Have Heard of It)

The Last Recognition of Belligerency (and Some Thoughts on Why You May Not Have Heard of It)

If there is one thing we can agree on is that recognition of belligerency is in disuse – that it is a relic of the 19th century and that it died off sometime before the Spanish Civil War, right? Recognition of belligerency either “fell into desuetude” or is in a state of “current total disuse”. In fact, says Prof. Sivakumaran, “at least since 1949, and more likely since 1899, there have not been any cases of recognition of belligerency or insurgency”. This is a settled issue, right?


If you google “reconocimiento de beligerancia América Latina” (that is, “recognition of belligerency Latin America”, in Spanish), the first result will be a 2008 article from BBC that (in my translation) says:

“[T]he Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), that ousted the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, received the recognition of belligerency towards the final years of the 1970s”.

Clearly something is off. How can there be no cases of recognition of belligerency since 1899 when I can google evidence of one as recently as 1979? Simple: lack of English sources. If you repeat the exercise above, but in English, Google’s first result will be an 1896 Amos Hershey article on the recognition of Cuban Belligerency. If you replace “Latin America” with “Central America”, the result will be a 1937 article on the Spanish Civil War. You have to type “recognition of belligerency FSLN” before you get any specific mentions: a 1980 article that briefly mentions the FLSN in a footnote.

But then again, even if you do understand Spanish, it would not be easy to access the full text of the actual Andean Pact Declaration that issued the recognition, outside scattered extracts. It took me several weeks and the help of a group of exceptional archivist and diplomats at the Peruvian MFA to pull that off (Ms. Cecilia Castillo and Mr. Galo Garcés deserve all the credit!). The statement was annexed to an obscure information bulletin issued by the Peruvian MFA Press and Public Relations Directorate.

The difficulty in securing these primary sources explains why this case may have escaped many authors. This is regrettable, because I think there is much we can learn from this outlying example of state practice. Indeed, if we read the Andean Pact statement in the context of Latin history, it tells us how recognition of belligerency has changed over time.

To explain why, let me take you back to the days of Latin American independence. As vulnerable – often turbulent – new states living in a world not very fond of revolution, these republics needed to secure their standing by achieving two things: (i) other states should recognize their independence, and (ii) other states should not be able to take advantage of domestic turbulence as an excuse for interventionism (more on this here and here). In other words, Latin America needed to attract support for its right to “self-determination” without affecting its right to “non-intervention” after independence – a complicated balance to maintain.

The solution came thanks to the European concept of recognition of belligerency. In Europe’s international law, civil strife was an internal affair, but when a domestic armed group began to affect third parties, these states would recognize the group’s belligerency. That way, if the rebels attacked, the affected states responded against the rebels, not the home-state.

Latin America, however, had different needs, focused not so much on regulation of force, but on non-intervention. Recognition of belligerency required third states to follow the rules of neutrality: if the rebels did not attack, then foreign powers needed to stay out of the conflict. The system worked by satisfying both Europe’s need for international regulation and Latin America’s need for securing non-intervention.

The Latin view was so distinct that in 1891, when Chile erupted into civil war, Latin diplomats and scholars debated whether belligerency could be recognized outside the context of independence and secession. Carlos Wiesse, a 19th century Peruvian scholar, notes disapprovingly that to some authors, wars of insurrection (“those that only seek a change of institutions”, not territorial separation) do not allow for recognition of belligerency. He cites the case of Colombia, which refused to recognize the belligerency of Chilean rebels by claiming that it would be unfair to “recognize two simultaneous governments in a single state, in the same way as it is monstrous for a single organism to have two heads”. In Colombia’s much narrower view of belligerency, during wars of insurrection, “[f]or as long as the government fights, other governments must, by general rule, abstain from entering in relations with the entity seeking to subjugate it” (Wiesse, p. 32). This does not seem to have been an issue in the Global North.

These different understandings between North and South explain why as belligerency began to slowly die in Europe and the United States – regions tired of its steep diplomatic cost – it was still alive in Latin America. In fact, in 1913, during the Mexican Civil War, the Constitutionalist factions of Venustiano Carranza sent an emissary to the United States “with the express objective of convincing the US government of the belligerent condition of the Carrancista army (…) to secure at least the American government’s neutrality” (see Guerrero Apráez, p. 139). The US however refused to even address the issue (Id., p. 143). In complete contrast, Latin American states included reference to belligerency in the 1928 Civil Strife Convention, barely 8 years before its final “death” during the Spanish Civil War.

By 1949, the Geneva Conventions fully replaced the need to recognize belligerency, satisfying the need for minimal regulation of internal conflict. As the Cold War raged, proxy wars made it increasingly difficult to use an institution like belligerency that the great powers no longer wanted. Slowly, but steadily, the connection between belligerency and non-intervention began to fade away in Latin America’s collective mind, even if the institution itself did not.

So, when in June 1979, the Andean Pact needed to respond to the ruthless US-backed Nicaraguan dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, recognition of belligerency was not seen as an opaque 19th century concept. When Somoza communicated to the Andean Pact delegation “a clear impression that he did not find possible any other kind of solution that did not fit within his requirements regarding conclusion of his presidential term” and that “the internal problem in Nicaragua was currently a military fact that must be solved through military means”, the Pact reacted by invoking recognition of belligerency.

Indeed, barely 5 days after the delegation left Managua, the Andean Pact recognized the FSLN’s belligerency, “lamenting” that General Somoza’s response “do[es] not allow any realistic hope that [he] will take the necessary decisions for peace and fraternity to return to the Nicaraguan homeland”. In other words: the only solution was for him to resign and recognition of belligerency was a step to force him in that direction. For the Andean Pact:

“[T]his military situation, objectively considered, forces the recognition as belligerents of the popular forces that are currently fighting against the Nicaraguan Government, which we thus officially communicate herein so that these forces benefit from the treatment and the prerogatives that correspond to them according to international law, and so they comply with the obligations that this latter imposes to legitimate combatants”.

A week later, upon request of Venezuela, the OAS Meeting of Consultation of Foreign Affairs Ministers called for Somoza’s ouster (see this IACHR Report). The Resolution states (my translation) that “the inhumane conduct of the dictatorial regime (…) is the fundamental cause of the dramatic situation befalling the Nicaraguan people” and that any solution should be “inspired” by the “immediate and definitive replacement of the Somocist regime”.

Less than a month later, “[u]pon consultation with the governments that truly have interest in pacifying the country” (i.e. arguably, not the Andean Pact), Somoza resigned.

This – the last recognition of belligerency – therefore, was not meant to secure the Andean Pact’s rights vis a vis the FSLN nor to protect them (or Nicaragua) from foreign interventionism. All to the contrary, the word “neutrality” was not even mentioned once. The recognition itself was rather part of a toolbox designed to directly interfere in the Nicaraguan conflict and bring about the end of the Somoza dictatorship, in the name of human rights.

The Nicaraguan experience arguably brought about a change in the way Latin American states perceived recognition of belligerency in international affairs. In the past, it had been a tool against foreign interventionism. Now, it was a tool of intra-regional interventionism.

It is because of this change that Hugo Chávez tried to declare the FARC and ELN’s belligerency in 2008. Proposals for the recognition of belligerence became a way for Latin American governments to try to upset the balance of internal conflicts in the region, empowering armed groups beyond the prerogatives of the Geneva Conventions. This is definitely not a frequent occurrence, but it is at least much more frequent and serious than in Global North discussions.

This paradigm change has had serious implications for Latin America as a whole. It has made international humanitarian law suspect, by conflating Common Article 3 conflicts with situations like that of Chavez and Colombia. As I mentioned in a post back in August, many in Peru still believe the Shining Path would receive belligerent rights if Common Article 3 applies, and accuse IHL scholars of being part of a foreign campaign to strengthen terrorist groups. All of these problems have their origin in the 1979 Andean Pact Statement and the changes it brought about.

So, as a conclusion, the story this Statement tells is twofold. On the one hand, it’s the story of how recognition of belligerency evolved through time in a particular region of the world. On the other, it is the story of how it fell through the cracks of linguistic limitations and lack of diversity in international law. This is not the only story that has. But I will leave those for another day. For now, and hoping that others will not need to go to so much trouble to  find it, I think it would be a good public service if I just transcribe it below, so everyone – North or South – can access it.


Los Ministros de Relaciones Exteriores de Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Perú y Venezuela:


Que los Jefes de Estado de los países miembros del Grupo Andino decidieron durante su reciente reunión en Cartagena declararse en consulta permanente para impulsar solidariamente las acciones que correspondan para coadyuvar a poner fin al derramamiento de sangre en Nicaragua, al restablecimiento de la paz y la vigencia de los Derechos Humanos en ese país hermano;

Que de conformidad con esa decisión, los Gobiernos de los países Andinos encomendaron a los señores Cancilleres de Ecuador y Venezuela una gestión de carácter internacional que los llevó a entrevistarse con el general Anastasio Somoza en Nicaragua;

Que la situación comprobada por los señores Cancilleres, a raíz de su paso por Nicaragua y de la entrevista sostenida con el General Somoza, es la existencia de un grave y profundo deterioro de la situación social y política en ese país y;

Que, lamentablemente, las expresiones que han recogido directamente del General Somoza no permiten alentar en lo inmediato ninguna fundada esperanza de que el Gobierno actual de ese país tomará las decisiones necesarias para que la paz y la confraternidad vuelvan a reinar en la patria nicaragüense.

Los Ministros de Relaciones Exteriores de Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Perú y Venezuela, a nombre de sus Gobiernos y actuando en función de la Declaración Presidencial de Cartagena y en resguardo de la convivencia pacífica y fraterna que debe prevalecer en los Estados de América Latina,


Que reiteran su ferviente aspiración a que se restablezca cuanto antes la paz en Nicaragua sobre la base del respeto de los derechos fundamentales de la persona humana, y su disposición a realizar todos los esfuerzos que sean necesarios, con arreglo al Derecho Internacional y a los principios básicos que rigen en el Sistema Interamericano, para que la Nación hermana alcance tan preciado objetivo;

Que, sin embargo, la lucha armada que actualmente se desenvuelve entre el Gobierno actual y vastos sectores del pueblo nicaragüense ha asumido tales características de permanencia, profundidad y acción bélica abierta, que ponen de manifiesto un verdadero estado de beligerancia;

Que esta situación bélica, considerada objetivamente, obliga a reconocer como beligerantes a las fuerzas populares que en este momento se encuentran en pugna con el Gobierno de Nicaragua, lo que así comunicamos oficialmente a los efectos de que tales fuerzas gocen del tratamiento y las prerrogativas que, con arreglo al Derecho Internacional, le corresponden y cumplan con las obligaciones que éste impone a los combatientes legítimos;

La presente Declaración constituye un nuevo paso en el proceso que los países Andinos han iniciado con respecto a la situación de Nicaragua, que siguen con honda preocupación y en permanente alerta. Resulta de la apreciación objetiva de la situación actual y será mantenida mientras no se adopten medidas positivas encaminadas a poner fin a una lucha cada vez más sangrienta e inhumana que agravia la conciencia de nuestras naciones y a instaurar en Nicaragua un régimen de verdadera democracia y libertad.

Los Ministros de Relaciones Exteriores de los países miembros del Pacto Andino, al tomar esta decisión, formulan, además, un cordial llamamiento a todos los países del continente con el propósito de que, examinadas las razones que han conducido a reconocer la existencia de un estado de beligerancia en Nicaragua, estudien la posibilidad de adherir a esta decisión, lo que sin duda contribuirá eficazmente a facilitar la instauración de un régimen de verdadera democracia representativa, justicia y libertad en Nicaragua.

16 de Junio de 1979.

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Latin & South America, Public International Law
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