Legal Status of National Liberation Movements

The decolonialization of the 20th Century, and the breakup of post-Cold War nation-States into more ethnic based States revived the legal question of the status of national liberation movements (NLM).  Broadly defined, a national liberation movement is one where a “people”, generally ethnically defined, worked towards self-determination and self-governance.

In order to have international standing under the Geneva Protocol of 1977, the NLM must control, or strive to control, territory and govern that territory as an autonomous State actor.  The predominant test is whether the organization maintains the desire for self-governance and self-determination for a recognized class of peoples. At the point that this test is met, the organization is no longer an insurgent, but rather becomes an NLM, and is entitled to the legal receipt of humanitarian, economic and military aid as a legitimate international actor.

In order to achieve this status, however, it is necessary that the NLM have the apparatus of government, including a representative organization, and the recognition that the people the NLM represents are conducting a conflict against a colonial, racist or alien State.  If so, the NLM is clothed with international standing, de jure or de facto as the representative of the subjugated people, and should be treated essentially equal to any other territorial State.