In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Liberation and Resistance Movements

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Civil Disobedience and the Right to Resistance
  • Secessionist Movements
  • Freedom Fighter vs. Terrorism
  • Insurgency and Counterinsurgency
  • Application of Humanitarian Law
  • Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)
  • Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)

International Law Liberation and Resistance Movements
Martin Wählisch
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0186


The phenomenon of resistance and liberation movements has occurred throughout history and remains current. Wars of independence and attempts of those range back centuries, including prominent examples such as the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), the Irish War of Independence (1919–1921), the Kosovo War (1996–1999), the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983–2005), and many others. The struggle of the African National Congress (ANC) against the apartheid regime, the efforts of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to “liberate Palestine,” the demand of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for Kurdish autonomy, and the actions of the armed guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are just some of the widely known cases of resistance and liberation movements. The Arab uprisings in late 2010 and 2011 that spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and other countries in the region are recent examples of civil resistance. The definition of civil or national resistance, liberation, and separatist or independence movements is fluid. Scholars have suggested different classifications and terminology nomenclatures with the common emphasis on sociopolitical interests, namely freedom from oppression, enhanced political or cultural autonomy, or full-fledged independence. Theories on nationalist populism, public armed violence, ethnic identity, and collective mobilization are part of the topic’s thematic social science periphery. In public international law, the concept of resistance and liberation movements is explicitly mentioned in international humanitarian law with references in the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols. Overall, international law provides the right to resistance and liberation based on the right of self-determination, but the scope and conditions are disputed apart from general parameters. A point of tension in relation to the right to self-determination results from the principles of state sovereignty and territorial integrity, which pose limitations for national liberation and resistance struggles. Differentiating civil disobedience from armed resistance, clarifying legal justifications for secessionist movements, unpacking the freedom fighter versus terrorism dichotomy, being aware of legal rules for counterinsurgencies, and the application of humanitarian law are other critical legal aspects to consider in this context.

General Overviews

Literature on resistance and liberation movements is manifold, including political, social science, and legal perspectives. The international law angle has been studied comprehensively throughout the last decades with contributions from the human rights, rule of law, use of force, accountability, and international humanitarian law fields. Among others, classic readings on the legal thinking about resistance and liberation movements include Shaw 1983 on the international status of national liberation movements and Wilson 1988 on the use of force by national liberation movements. Boyle 1987 is a prominent advocacy piece on defending civil resistance under international law. The same author’s book on the role of protesting power in the aftermath of 9/11, Boyle 2007, offers a recent account on the matter. A systematic introduction to the overall theme of resistance and liberation movements, although partly outdated regarding current practice but still highly insightful, is the monograph Quaye 1991, which touches on a range of international law issues concerning liberation struggles. The monographs Younis 2000 on the South African and Palestinian national movements as well as Higgins 2010 on the South Moluccas and Aceh provide concrete case studies on cross-cutting international law aspects. Roth 1999 reflects on the “right to democratic governance,” including rules for resistance and liberation movements, and Blunt 2017 discusses grounds for a “human right to resistance”— both contributions are useful reads to deepen understanding of legal issues. Zegveld 2002 on accountability under international law for the acts committed by armed opposition groups and the monograph Lieblich 2013 on the legality of intervention in civil wars are additional thought-provoking introductory readings on the topic.

  • Blunt, Gwilym David. “Is There a Human Right to Resistance?” Human Rights Quarterly 39.4 (2017): 860–881.

    DOI: 10.1353/hrq.2017.0052

    Blunt examines whether a human right to resistance exists in the face of global poverty. He argues that a right to resistance is a necessary component of the political conception of human rights.

  • Boyle, Francis Anthony. Defending Civil Resistance under International Law. Dobbs Ferry, NY: Transnational Publishers, 1987.

    Boyle’s monograph provides an overview on the legal defense for actions of civil resistance intended to halt destructive government activities. The book discusses civil disobedience cases in the United States, Central America, and South Africa with regard to aspects of international law.

  • Boyle, Francis Anthony. Protesting Power: War, Resistance, and Law. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.

    This more recent monograph of Boyle provides legal and constitutional arguments to support and defend civil resistance activities. Boyle explores how international law can be used to question the legality of US foreign and domestic policies in the aftermath of 9/11 concerning the abridgment of civil rights.

  • Higgins, Noelle. Regulating the Use of Force in Wars of National Liberation: The Need for a New Regime; A Study of the South Moluccas and Aceh. Leiden, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 2010.

    The author analyzes the legal framework governing wars of national liberation in light of conflicts in the South Moluccas and Aceh against Indonesia. Higgins recommends changes regarding the international rules of the legitimate use of force to deal more adequately with modern self-determination conflicts.

  • Lieblich, Eliav. International Law and Civil Wars: Intervention and Consent. New York: Routledge, 2013.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203588918

    This book examines the legality of intervention in civil wars, including cases in which governmental powers might be transferred to opposition groups. Lieblich discusses the concept of consensual intervention, especially those upon the invitation or consent of a government that seeks assistance in confronting armed opposition groups.

  • Quaye, Christopher O. Liberation Struggles in International Law. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

    This book studies the phenomena of national liberation movements by investigating the right of self-determination and rebellion, principles of the use of force, and terrorism. Quaye examines the nature of liberation movements, the history and validity of anti-colonial struggles, decolonization movements against apartheid, noncolonial cases, the right of self-determination, aspects of effective control of a state, the use of force, and the issue of foreign intervention in liberation movement struggles.

  • Roth, Brad R. Governmental Illegitimacy in International Law. Oxford: Clarendon, 1999.

    This article evaluates cases in which competing factions assert governmental authority, while focusing on the problem of “illegitimate” governments. Roth provides details on the history and international practice of the “right to democratic governance,” including rules for resistance and liberation movements.

  • Shaw, Malcolm. “The International Status of National Liberation Movements.” Liverpool Law Review 19.5 (1983): 19–34.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF01079983

    Shaw assesses whether national liberation movements are subjects of international law. He questions the impact of liberation movements within the spheres of the rules governing armed conflicts and the laws of war.

  • Wilson, Heather A. International Law and the Use of Force by National Liberation Movements. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

    Wilson explores whether national liberation movements may legitimately resort to the use of force. The book explains traditional tenets of the international law of armed conflict, in general, and examines the application of the humanitarian law in wars of national liberation, in particular.

  • Younis, Mona N. Liberation and Democratization: The South African and Palestinian National Movements. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

    This book provides a comprehensive comparison of two prominent liberation movements, namely South Africa and Palestine. Younis describes common circumstances and experiences, despite the different outcomes of both cases regarding liberation and democratization.

  • Zegveld, Liesbeth. Accountability of Armed Opposition Groups in International Law. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511495199

    Zegveld analyzes issues of accountability under international law for acts committed by armed opposition groups or for the failure to prevent these acts. Zegveld examines the need to legally identify the parties involved when armed internal conflict arises and they raise a demand for rights.

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