Legal Status of National Liberation Movements

The decolonization 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). A national liberation movement is broadly defined as one where a “people,” generally ethnically defined, worked towards self-determination and self-governance.

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 people. When this test is met, the organization is no longer an insurgent but instead becomes an NLM and is entitled to the legal receipt of humanitarian, economic, and military aid as a legitimate international actor.

To achieve this status, however, the NLM must have the government apparatus, 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.

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