In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section International Law and Wars of National Liberation

  • Introduction
  • International Law and Nonstate Actors
  • The Right to Self-Determination
  • Terrorism
  • Gender
  • The United Nations
  • Case Studies
  • Postcolonial Wars of National Liberation

International Relations International Law and Wars of National Liberation
Noelle Higgins
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0072


Wars of national liberation are armed struggles waged by a people through its liberation movement against the established government to achieve self-determination. While wars of this type have been fought since the foundation of the sovereign state system, the main spate of such conflicts occurred in Africa in the postcolonial era of the mid- to late 20th century. A number of postcolonial self-determination conflicts continue today. National liberation movements and governments have opposing views of wars of national liberation. National liberation movements view their armed challenge to the established government as a “just war”; indeed, they view it as a legitimate exercise of a right to revolution, waged to achieve the right of the people they represent to self-determination. Conversely, governments view challenges to their authority as the acts of terrorists and criminals, seeking to destroy public order and, ultimately, territorial integrity, and, in general, they attempt to deal with such violence under domestic criminal or martial law. While a number of states have accepted that national liberation movements have the proper authority to resort to the use of force to achieve self-determination and that their conflicts are lawful, this view is not universally accepted. These conflicts involve the use of force by nonstate actors and so they challenge the statecentric international law paradigm. However, wars of national liberation have been explicitly accommodated by international humanitarian law since 1977 through the adoption of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Article 1(4) of Additional Protocol I provides that international armed conflict situations include armed conflicts in which peoples are fighting against colonial domination, alien occupation, and against racist regimes in the exercise of their right of self-determination. Article 96(3) of Additional Protocol I also provides a mechanism whereby national liberation movements can agree to apply, and be bound by, Additional Protocol I. This amendment to the legal framework, driven by pressure from developing countries and national liberation movements, has been viewed as an important political victory for peoples seeking self-determination. However, despite these amendments, the legal framework has shown itself to be weak and limited in scope. States have also proven themselves to be unwilling to apply the current legal regime except in an ad hoc and unpredictable manner.

General Overviews

Wars of national liberation have achieved somewhat limited attention in academic commentary to date, with few works dedicated in full to their analysis. A handful of books and a number of articles are specifically dedicated to the topic, although the subject is given some consideration as part of broader discussions on a number of issues, including the use of force, self-determination, and international humanitarian law, among others. Academic attention began to become focused on these conflicts in the 1960s; however, few works have been published on such conflicts in more recent times. Some works on this topic take a theoretical approach and analyze the legal framework concerning wars of national liberation, particularly the jus in bello aspect. Other works seek to appreciate how the legal framework has been applied in reality and use case studies to illustrate this.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.