A Sympathy Borne out of Legal Identity? (Re)Viewing Ethiopia’s Move to Recognize Somaliland’s Statehood from a Different Angle

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In the process of understanding the undeclared drivers behind Ethiopia’s move towards recognition of Somaliland’s statehood, this blog post sheds light on how changes in legal identities guide the decision-making process of States in international law. It specifically examines the potential links between Ethiopia’s shifting position on the principle of territorial integrity and its move to Somaliland’s recognition.

1. Ethiopia Intendsto Recognize Somaliland

On 1st January 2024, a major event unfolded in the Horn of Africa as the Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, and the President of a self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland signed a Memorandum of Understanding for Partnership and Cooperation in Addis Ababa.   The Memorandum, though its full contents are not yet published, has received international attention (including  an enquiry on international law’s use to help Ethiopia find a solution for its sovereign right on access to the sea)  and has ignited heated reactions and oppositions, particularly from the Federal Republic of Somalia, who claims Somaliland as part of its own (Northern) territory. Basing its arguments on international law and its Constitution, Somalia denounces the memorandum as “null and void”.

The core of Somalia’s’ opposition to the Memorandum lies in the objectives that the signatories intend to achieve through their deal.  The objectives are: (1) Somaliland’s intention  to lease Ethiopia, a landlocked State, 20 square kilometres of land for the latter’s use of naval and maritime bases on the Coast of Gulf of Aden, for 50 years; (2) Ethiopia’s intention ‘to make an-in-depth assessment towards taking position regarding the efforts of Somaliland to gain recognition’,  an intention which Somaliland understands and expressly claims in its decision to “formally recognize the Republic of Somaliland” as a State.  These declarations of intention have led to a diplomatic standoff between Ethiopia and Somalia, with the latter accusing the former of unlawfully transgressing its sovereignty and territorial integrity over Somaliland.  Ethiopia, however, disagrees with Somalia’s accusation and argues that “no party or country will be affected by [the Memorandum]”. She thus remains firm in her stand and is looking for a practical implementation of the Memorandum. Invoking Article 35 of the UN Charter, Somalia, on its part, has brought the matter to the United Nations Security Council and, on 29th January 2024 the Council held a closed consultation session on the matter. No statement was made following this discussion. On its part, the Council has redirected the matter for a regional settlement under the auspices of the African Union and IGAD.  And yet, tensions and contentions over the Memorandum continue.

Inevitably, these international developments raise international law questions. One such question is the legality of Ethiopia’s engagement with the unrecognized Republic of Somaliland, and its move to recognize the latter as a state. From the perspectives of international law and rules of state recognition, at least two (argumentative) responses could be suggested to the legality question. First, according to predominant understandings on the practices of recognition of statehood for territories unilaterally declared independent and denied recognition by their mother (core) states, Ethiopia’s move to recognize Somaliland, denied and opposed by Somalia, may be held illegal. Second, Ethiopia’s move to recognize Somaliland might be taken as an action that falls under the former’s sovereign rights under international law, albeit not leading to international recognition.  

These and other views and positions may be held on the legality of Somaliland’s international recognition by a single state, like Ethiopia, or by group of states, or by international organizations, despite Somalia’s opposition. However, the purpose of this blog post is not to answer these questions of legality. It neither examines the legality or legitimacy of Somaliland’s quest for international recognition or its non-recognition. This post rather intends to examine and (re)establish grounds for the legitimacy of Ethiopia’s recognition of Somaliland as a state. The article links Ethiopia’s recent move to recognize Somaliland with its past uses and views on (certain principles of) international law. In particular, the post examines Ethiopia’s position on the principle of territorial integrity of states. The principle is duly protected under Article 2(1) & (4) of the Charter of the United Nations, and under Articles 3(b) and 4(a), (b) & (g) of the Constitutive Act of the African Union, to mention only a few to which Ethiopia is a party and has a duty to abide by in carrying out its international relations.

As discussed below, Ethiopia’s historical transformation from being a paragon of principle of territorial integrity into becoming a post-cold war secessionist state illuminates the changes on (inter)national legal identities, and these changes may help us locate sources of internal legitimacy that could better explain Ethiopia’s move to recognize Somaliland.   

2. Ethiopia Has Changed Identities in (Inter)national Law.

In the age of imperialism where most African territorial sovereignties were partitioned into smaller pieces and colonized. Ethiopia maintained its independence and managed to become the symbol and beacon of hope in the move to reclaim African sovereignties. Ethiopia’s victory over Italy at the Battle of Adwa in 1896 and its liberation from Fascist Italy’s occupation (1936-1941) made her a centre and inspiration for international resistance and liberation to Africans and beyond.    

International law, despite its disastrous role in enabling the partition and subjugation of African sovereignties to colonial sovereignty, was used as a force of resistance by Ethiopia.  In the post-Second World War era, Ethiopia implemented its territorially integrated decolonial approach, battling over decolonization of ex-Italian colonies of Eritrea, Italian-Somaliland, and Libya. The diplomatic fights it had in the deliberations under the Political and Territorial Commission, established under the Paris Peace Conference, and its active participation in the subsequent discussions in the lead-up to a final determination of ex-Italian colonies by the UNGA, demonstrated Ethiopia’s (op)position against the returning of Italy, as a Trust Administrator, to these territories. Through its further request for Eritrea’s and Italian-Somaliland’s integration with herself, Ethiopia put her decolonization formula to the test. Given the unity in terms of ethnicity with populations in Eritrea and Somaliland, Ethiopia considered it to be appropriate that these ethnicities were united in one state. With these understandings, Ethiopia envisioned African (post) colonial independence through a territorially integrated and ethnic unification of populations rather than ‘a territory, a state’ or ‘an ethnic group, a state’ formula of statehood and decolonization 

These post-war Ethiopian moments of international law and the many years that followed (1952-1974) showcased Ethiopia’s strong commitment to the integrity and territorial sovereignty of States, including herself. This commitment was further expressed in Ethiopia’s leading role in the formation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), whose constitutive instrument made territorial sovereignty of states its sacrosanct principle. Internally, Ethiopia’s longest civil wars (1967-1991) were fought to defend and maintain Ethiopia’s territorial integrity against the secessionist ethnic liberation fronts.  

In the post-Cold War, along with the dawn of a new global order, and following the victory of ethnic liberation forces, Ethiopia changed face in terms of its (inter)national legal identity.  This change was most apparent in a moment of Constitutional devolution, transforming a focus on Ethiopian Territorial Sovereignty into a prioritization of the territorial sovereignties of ethnic groups (preamble, Articles 8(2), 39(4), 40(3 & 6), 46(1)).  Hence, in this fundamental volte-face that ended a history of a territorially sovereign Ethiopian State, as it was before 1991, the FDRE Constitution provided these sovereign ethnic groups “an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession” (Article 39(1) and (4))). This “unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession” is an absolute right that would never be suspended even in times of emergency (Article 93(4 (c)).  The key legal and political provisions of the constitution no longer even refer to Ethiopia as a territorial (sovereign) state. The Constitution only knows ethnic (sovereign) territories/states, and statehood is understood and wielded in its revised parlance (Articles 46-52) in Ethnic-Ethiopia.

Given its changed focus from the principle of territorial integrity to that of (ethnic) self-determination (including and through secession) Ethiopia’s move to recognize Somaliland is not an entirely inexplicable turn of events. With its (inter)national law identity, who else, other than Ethiopia, will be an icebreaker in defying the non-recognition gridlock that has held Somaliland’s quest for international recognition back for about three decades?

Hence, with or without the precondition of securing maritime and naval bases in the Gulf of Aden, Ethiopia’s latest move hints at its intention to become the first state to recognize a self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland. This is consistent with Ethiopia’s shifting understanding on the principle of territorial integrity. As recognized under the FDRE Constitution, the ethnic right to secession has preeminence over the principle of territorial integrity.

In accordance with this current constitutional identity, Ethiopia could not have sympathy to Somalia’s territorial integrity. Unlike its pre-Cold war convictions and until it changes course, secession, not integration, is Ethnic Ethiopia’s legal preference, an identity that provides legitimacy to her support for break-away territories such as Somaliland.

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