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Don't Recognize Illegal Military Takeovers

The UN could establish universal legal principles that would ostracize illegitimate power grabs

THE continuing crises in Haiti, Nigeria, and Burma (also called Myanmar) highlight a major weakness in worldwide efforts to promote democracy - the urgent need to establish binding international legal principles that ban recognition of de facto military regimes. The establishment of such principles, and the creation of legal mechanisms for their implementation, would foster democracy throughout the world.

The 1991 fall of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti mimics the pattern of several situations in recent history: A government comes to power with strong popular appeal but without support from the military. When confronted with a threat to its political hegemony, the military overthrows the civilian government. In Burma and Nigeria, military leaders refuse to surrender power to democratically elected civilians.

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Recognition by Western democracies or implied recognition through ambivalent signs of disapproval has encouraged military officers to overthrow countless constitutional governments. The military relinquishes power only when forced by popular will or when its own incapacity to govern has made its position untenable. This happened to the Greek junta after its debacle in Cyprus, to the Chilean regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, and to the Argentine military after the Falklands (Malvinas) conflict.

New international principles could be established, however, that would automatically bar the recognition of such regimes. The United Nations General Assembly and its International Law Commission could be asked to create legislation. As former Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold has said, ``The United Nations is the most appropriate place for development and change of international law on behalf of the whole society of States.''

Establishing nonrecognition as a universal principle raises some difficult questions. What about already established and recognized military regimes? These cases show the near impossibility of applying the principle retroactively.

What if a country's military forces stage a coup against an oppressive or corrupt civilian regime? An ousted civilian government that has been freely elected by the people should not be denied recognition in favor of a post-coup military regime unless the overthrown government has been responsible for gross human-rights violations. Furthermore, following a coup, recognition should be withheld until another civilian government is chosen in free elections.

Who would decide whether an ousted civilian regime was oppressive? Or whether elections staged by the military were free and fair? The logical body to make these assessments is the International Court of Justice (also known as the World Court) at The Hague in the Netherlands. The composition of the court and its responsibilities should be decided by the UN's International Law Commission. Making the World Court responsible for decisions involving recognition of governments would prevent the issue from being subjected to the political crosscurrents of the UN General Assembly.

Denying recognition to a de facto regime will not by itself restore democracy. It is, however, a significant step that could be followed by stronger measures, as in the case of Haiti.

Would nonrecognition be undue interference in the internal affairs of another state? It would not be if it were a consistent principle of international law as established by the UN.

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Nonrecognition of military regimes responds to worldwide demands to eliminate the plague of military dictatorships. Once established as a legal principle, it would transform lex ferenda (law that one wishes to establish) into lex lata (law in being).

It would be a remarkable step toward world peace and justice.

The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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