Recognizing Libya’s Rebels

Are Libya's rebels ready to take the reins of power?

Yesterday the United States took the important step of formally recognizing Libya’s rebels as the legitimate government of Libya. This recognition will theoretically allow the U.S. to free up $30 billion in Libyan assets that had been frozen in order to provide badly needed aid to the rebels. (For an analysis of the rebels’ shockingly amateurish, if determined, approach to warfighting, see here).  However, as Foreign Policy blogger Josh Rogin points out, a number of thorny legal questions must be answered before the aid can be delivered:

“First of all, it’s unclear how the various U.N. and U.S. sanctions that have been levied on Libya since March will now be applied, considering that the [rebel Transitional National Council] is now seen as the ‘Libyan government.’…U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970 prohibits sending arms to Libya. Does that now apply to the rebels? Does the White House now have to rescind executive orders on Libya, some of which call for restrictions aimed against the ‘Government of Libya’?”

As discussed in a recent blog post, there is a  big difference between juridical sovereignty, a legal right implied by external recognition, and empirical sovereignty, the actual ability of a government to control its territory.  In this case, the Libyan rebels are only in charge of the eastern part of the country–Qaddafi’s forces hold most of the west, including the capital city of Tripoli.

Historically, the U.S. and other countries have granted official recognition to those regimes that possessed empirical sovereignty, even if those regimes were deemed distasteful.  Joshua Keating rightly describes this unusual recognition of Libya’s rebels as a “Wilsonian” move (invoking former U.S. president and quintessential idealist Woodrow Wilson).  Idealists emphasize human rights, democracy, and other values in ways that lead them to depart from “power politics” considerationsRealists, who embrace power politics and claim to view the world as it is rather than as they might wish it to be, would decry the recognition of an ineffectual government as wishful thinking.   But as Keating points out, “Wilson’s creative interpretation of the law of recognition helped establish the international illegitimacy of Huerta’s regime [in Mexico] and certainly contributed to his downfall.”  Could America’s action yesterday similarly hasten the demise of Qaddafi’s regime?

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