Stefan Talmon is Professor of Public International Law at the University of Oxford.
The current situation in Libya provides a good example of grand political rhetoric meeting legal reality. Over the last fortnight the Qadhafi administration seems to have undergone a transformation from being the ‘Government of Libya’ to being an ‘illegitimate regime’. On 26 February 2011, US President Barack Obama said with regard to Colonel Qadhafi: ‘when a leader`s only means of staying in power is to use mass violence against his own people, he has lost the legitimacy to rule’. This was echoed two days later, by UK Prime Minister David Cameron who told the House of Commons: ‘It is clear that this is an illegitimate regime that has lost the consent of its people.’
Through his actions, Colonel Qadhafi may ‘have lost the legitimacy to govern’ but has he also lost the competence to do so under international law? International law does not distinguish between illegitimate regimes and lawful governments. ‘Legitimacy’ is a political concept and not a legal term of art. In fact, international law does not provide any criteria for defining and determining legitimacy. If consent of the people or a democratic mandate were indeed such criteria, many governments in the world would have to be ‘downgraded’ to illegitimate regimes. Both the United States and the United Kingdom are, of course, aware of the distinction. Thus, on 25 February 2011, US Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley told a press conference
‘I believe, from a legal standpoint, he [Colonel Qadhafi] is still the head of state and head of government. But clearly, he has lost legitimacy in the eyes of his people, and that obviously influences our perceptions of him as well.’
While it is in the interest of the United States and the United Kingdom to keep channels of communication open and to deal with the representatives of the Libyan government as long as that government is in power, however obnoxious it may be, such behaviour is difficult to explain against the backdrop of the ‘illegitimacy’ rhetoric and may also cause some embarrassment.