An Internal Challenge: Partnerships in Fixing Failed States

By Thurer, Daniel | Harvard International Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

An Internal Challenge: Partnerships in Fixing Failed States


Thurer, Daniel, Harvard International Review


The term "failed state" has only recently entered into international legal jargon to describe the collapse and dissolution of states. These processes have become relatively frequent of late and are symptomatic of the condition of today's community of states and system of international law. Examples commonly cited include Somalia; Liberia and Sierra Leone, which have been racked by small-scale conflicts throughout the 1990s; Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early days of its independence; Rwanda at the time of the massacres and genocide; and, more recently, Sudan, a country which has been devastated by three conflicts. Although the discussion about the failed state phenomenon has only existed since the end of the Cold War, there are also cases of failed states prior to that period. These cases include the 20-year conflict in Cambodia, brought to an end by the Paris Agreement of 1991; the civil war in Lebanon during the 1980s; and various phases in the development of the Congo, a country that has been hard to govern since independence was achieved in 1960. The same themes were evident in the chaotic power struggles in China during the 1930s and can still be traced back all the way to the Thirty Years' War in seventeenth-century Europe.

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This article aims to analyze the phenomenon of failed states in its legal, political and sociological aspects. It will retrace the different approaches to addressing failed states and will attempt to show that efforts toward "fixing" failed states have been generally met with mixed success. It is argued here that while other states, international actors, and the Security Council in particular may play an important role, sustainable recovery will in the long run only be successful if it originates from within the failed state--and preferably from the grassroots level rather than from an imposing authority at the top.

The Political and Legal Phenomenon

The term "failed state" does not denote a precisely defined situation, but instead serves as a broad label for a complex phenomenon. A state is usually considered to have failed when the power structures providing political support for law and order have collapsed. This process is generally triggered and accompanied by anarchic forms of internal violence. Former Secretary-General of the UN, Boutros Boutros Ghali, described this situation as "the collapse of state institutions, especially the police and judiciary, with resulting paralysis of governance, a breakdown of law and order, and general banditry and chaos. Not only are the functions of government suspended, but its assets are destroyed or looted and experienced officials are killed or flee the country."

Hence, three elements characterize a failed state from the political point of view. First is the geographical and territorial aspect: failed states are essentially associated with endogenous problems, even though these may incidentally have cross-border impacts. The situation is one of implosion rather than of explosion of the structures of power and authority, of disintegration and destructuring of states rather than dismemberment. Second, there is the internal aspect characterized by the collapse of political and legal systems. The emphasis here is on the complete or near breakdown of structures guaranteeing law and order, as opposed to the kind of fragmentation of state authority seen in civil wars. The final element is an external one: the absence of capable bodies representing the state at the international level. Either no institution exists that has the authority to negotiate, represent, and enforce, or if one does, it is wholly unreliable. From the international law point of view, a failed state, while retaining legal capacity, has in all practical purposes lost the ability to exercise it. Moreover, there is no body able to legally commit a failed state to a binding agreement.

The Sociological Perspective

Sociologically, the failed state is characterized by two phenomena. …

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An Internal Challenge: Partnerships in Fixing Failed States
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