Intervention in Civil Wars Symposium: Representatives of their Own Peoples–From National Liberation Movements to Opposition Groups

Intervention in Civil Wars Symposium: Representatives of their Own Peoples–From National Liberation Movements to Opposition Groups

[Laura Íñigo Álvarez is a postdoctoral researcher and a lecturer in international law at Nova School of Law (Universidade Nova de Lisboa). She is the author of Towards a Regime of Responsibility of Armed Groups in International Law (Intersentia, 2020)].

Dr. Redaelli’s book, Intervention in Civil Wars: Effectiveness, Legitimacy and Human Rights, constitutes one of the most comprehensive studies on the question about intervention in civil wars or also called non-international armed conflicts. Her ultimate purpose is to examine how human rights have affected foreign interventions in internal conflicts. The book is divided into three main parts looking at the evolution of the notions of sovereignty, intervention, and human rights (Part I), the interventions in favour of governments (Part II), and the interventions in favour of opposition groups (Part III). Since my area of research has focused on armed opposition groups, I am going to restrict my comments to some of the questions discussed in Part III of the book.

One particular issue I find fascinating is the examination of the legitimacy of rebels in international law (in Chapter 6). The question of legitimacy and representativeness of rebel groups has been the centre of many discussions in the area of armed opposition groups and international law. These unfinished discussions deal, among other things, with how and why states (and international organisations) decide to recognise certain groups under international law and what consequences these acts might have.

Against this background, Redaelli’s book analyses the recognition of certain groups such as national liberation movements (NLMs) and rebel groups outside the decolonisation process together with the evolution of self-determination. As she correctly points out, although the right to self-determination has been long endorsed and confirmed in several international instruments (Article 1.2 of the UN Charter, Article 1 of the ICCPR and ICESCR), it is less clear how these groups were identified as the legitimate representatives of their peoples. It is interesting to note the practice of the Economic Commission for Africa as one of the first bodies to address the recognition of NLMs. This practice is relevant to answer the question she poses as to ‘How to identify the legitimate representative of people among several NLMs operating in one country?’ (p. 190). According to Redaelli, the criteria used by the Organisation for African Unity (OAU), the organ chosen to propose those representatives in the African context, could be considered subjective in some aspects. However, as she explains, two main criteria were identified: ‘First, all the liberation movements recognised by the OAU claimed to represent the whole population, and not just certain tribes or particular minorities. Second, control over the bulk of the population was a decisive element for the recognition, while territorial control was considered less important’ (p. 191). I think this is an important contribution since these criteria have not been always obvious. At the same time, it raises a number of questions, for instance, how can we assess that this group is in fact representing the whole population? Or why control over territory was less important in that period? As she further explains, to avoid this criticism more than one NLM was recognised in some circumstances, like in the case of Angola. To complete this picture, it could have been useful to assess the state practice in relation to liberation movements in South and Southeast Asia too.

Beyond the decolonisation context, Redaelli’s book explores a more contemporary problem which is the recognition of opposition groups during the Arab Spring, specifically, the cases of Libya and Syria. Here, she poses two key questions: ‘What does it mean to recognise a rebel group as a legitimate representative of its own people?’ and ‘Would the recognition of the opposition groups in Libya and Syria imply that they are exercising their right to self-determination?’ (p. 194). Both in Libya and Syria, the repression of peaceful demonstrations led to the emergence of internal conflicts involving violent clashes between the government and several opposition groups. As explained by Redaelli, the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Libya and the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) in Syria were recognised by several states as the legitimate representatives of the people of these states. In particular, she indicates that there is a difference between recognising rebels as the legitimate representatives of their peoples and recognising them as a new government, being the latter a legal step while the former is a mere political act (p. 195). In addition, she clarifies that ‘[…] the recognition of an opposition group as legitimate representative of a people might be a procedural step that precedes the possible recognition of the group as the new government’ (p. 201). In fact, this would be the first step where the legitimacy of the armed struggle by the opposition group or coalition of groups against the government is upheld. In a similar vein, Akande affirmed that ‘this recognition is also intended to provide legitimacy to the group in question, […] indicating that the recognizing State will only deal with that particular group in matters related to the struggle’. Therefore, the recognition of the rebel group as the possible new government would require an explicit or extra statement by states on this regard or at least a perceived clear intention to do so. It is however paradoxical that in the case of Libya many of the states recognising the NTC have a policy of not recognising governments, so it could have been interesting to analyse this change of view.

In relation to the second question, on the potential exercise of self-determination by these rebel groups on behalf of the Libyan and Syrian people, the answer does not seem to be easy, as Redaelli observes. On the one hand, in its external dimension, most authors have stated that the right to self-determination cannot be exercised outside the context of colonial domination, alien occupation or racist regimes. On the other hand, in its internal dimension, the right to self-determination involves the right to ‘freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development’ (Article 1 of the ICCPR and ICESCR) which could be applied to current independent states. According to Redaelli, it could be argued that ‘the Libyan and Syrian peoples were fighting for their right to internal self-determination’ (p. 200) but this does not automatically mean that states recognising these entities were actually upholding this right. I think here it is important to clarify two things. First, in the past rebel groups were recognised through the institute of belligerency and insurgency and this meant the possibility to entering into relations with them. Moreover, in contemporary non-international armed conflicts, rebel groups could fight for a number of reasons, including deprivation of rights, past human rights grievances, territorial control or control over natural resources, change of status, etc. Second, upholding the right to self-determination of a group could have consequences in relation to the application of the prohibition of the use of force and non-intervention. As explained by Akande, ‘There is a reasonable case to be made that international law permit State support for groups fighting for self-determination and that permissible support includes provision of weapons’. On the contrary, in regular cases, international law prohibits intervention in the internal affairs of other states. Therefore, the way in which states recognise rebel groups or coalitions of groups could have significant legal and political value. Additionally, we could wonder what lessons can be learned from the cases of Libya and Syria in relation to the future application of the right to (internal) self-determination.

Finally, I would like to congratulate Dr. Redaelli on an excellent book which serves to clarify important questions about interventions in civil wars, the use of force, and the legitimacy of rebels and human rights. This is indeed an outstanding contribution to the scholarly literature in this field.

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Books, Featured, General, International Criminal Law, International Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law, Symposia, Use of Force
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