Seven UN members and the EU recognise the Syrian National Council as the legitimate government/authority/interlocator of Syria. Around 50 states recognise the Guaidó interim presidency in Venezuela. Neither have operational control. There are probably other (historical or present) cases where a government-in-exile is recognised as the proper government by foreign states. But does international law allow for such a recognition?

I can see how such a construct could lead to the justification of military interventions that would normally be in violation of international law:

  • In a crisis in the Republic of Petrosocialism, the opposition unifies around Mr. Saviour, who proclaims himself President (and declares the country is now called the Republic of Petrocapitalism)
  • The neighbouring Empire has its interests more aligned with Mr. Saviour than with the leadership of the Republic of Petrosocialism, and recognises Mr. Saviour as the legitimate government.
  • Mr. Saviour has no operational control, but asks the Empire to please "provide military assistance" for the "liberation" of the Republic of Petrocapitalism
  • The Empire happily complies, and its overwhelming military power allows Mr. Saviour to establish operational control
  • The allies of the Republic of Petrosocialism call out that this is a flagrant violation of international law, while the Empire and its allies declare that since the legitimate government of the Republic of Petrocapitalism asked for assistance, it is legal to provide this

The key difference in interpretation of the legality of the military intervention lies in what government is recognised. Does international law allow for states to recognise a government of a foreign country, when that government has not established operational control?

  • 1
    Officially the government of Taiwan is the mainland PRC, although it hasn't had operational control for 50 years.
    – pjc50
    Feb 15, 2019 at 8:30
  • @pjc50 True, Taiwan / ROC is a particular case, where two governments claim mostly the same area, but have operational control over different parts.
    – gerrit
    Feb 15, 2019 at 8:40
  • De Gaulle government?
    – user4012
    Feb 15, 2019 at 16:10
  • 2
    I don't know, but I think it's possible that Mr. Saviour wouldn't get the military support he wants, because the Emperor is more interested in using the Republic of Petrosocialism to scare voters in the next election, and not in wasting soldiers in an unpopular war in which other Empires might participate. Also the Emperor may have the attention span of a gnat anyway. It may even be possible for the President of Petrosocialism to write a love letter to the Emperor after the election and get the Emperor to be his friend.
    – Obie 2.0
    Mar 6, 2019 at 10:13

1 Answer 1


Historically, there are many precedents for recognizing a government in exile or a government controlling only part of their territory, and using military force to try and reinstate it.

Asking if it is legal is misunderstanding how international law works. The UN is not a world government and the UNSC or the ICC are not world supreme courts. International law is mostly customary law, supplemented or codified by some treaties. Three principles are:

  • National Sovereignty
    This is a relatively old principle, dating back to the Westphalian peace at the end of the Thirty Years War.
  • National Self-Determination
    In the early 20th century, especially after WWI, it became accepted that an established government cannot hold a separate people under their rule against their will. This justified the breakup of empires and the decolonization, in contravention of established sovereignty.
  • Responsibility to Protect
    In recent decades, it was accepted that a govermment must protect their citizens, and that legitimacy will be lost if it fails to do so.

All three principles exist at the same time, and there is no permanent ranking of which is more important. This is always a judgement call, and often disputed.

  • Out of your three examples, two failed, and the third one related to countries under foreign occupation... they're still worthwhile examples though.
    – gerrit
    Feb 16, 2019 at 7:50
  • 1
    @gerrit, success doesn't affect the legality of the attempt.
    – o.m.
    Feb 16, 2019 at 10:45

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