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Rebels With a Cause

The history of rebel governance, from the U.S. Civil War to Libya

by Zachariah Mampilly,, New York, April 13, 2011

Recognition of rebel governments is currently a unilateral affair, in which each state decides for itself. But this ad hoc process can cause even greater suffering to civilian populations residing in areas of rebel control as states support or undermine the rebellion according to individual political motives.

ZACHARIAH MAMPILLY is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Africana Studies at Vassar College. He is the author of the upcoming book Rebel Rulers: Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life During War.

In late February, rebel leaders in the Libyan opposition formed the Transitional National Council, a quasi-government based in the rebel-controlled town of Benghazi. From there, the council attempts to manage daily affairs for nearly a million local residents. A variety of civilian committees struggle to ensure that the health system can deal with those injured in the violence, and that the courts and police continue to provide a semblance of order -- not to mention dealing with other basic issues of governance to keep the area from descending into chaos. Meeting these challenges is central to the rebellion's viability: a lack of basic political and social order could lead many Libyans to focus more on ensuring their own survival instead of continuing their efforts to overthrow the Qaddafi regime. 

Some early reports of the government were not encouraging: members of the rebel police force had targeted black Libyans and other sub-Saharan Africans as potential sympathizers of Muammar al-Qaddafi with little direct evidence. But as the war dragged on, rebel leaders have made improvements in governance. They have appointed academics and lawyers to ministries charged with handling foreign affairs, economics (including oil), infrastructure, media, and justice. In March, France became the first country to recognize the council; Qatar, Italy, and the Maldives soon followed.

The development of a governance system by a rebel force is not a particularly new turn of events. In February 1861, shortly before the U.S. Civil War began, the newly created Confederate States of America established a government to further the Southern cause. The Confederate government adopted a constitution and structure modeled on the rival government of the United States of America; it even went as far as producing postage with the image of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Although the Confederate government never gained international recognition, it coexisted with the U.S. government for the entirety of the Civil War, claiming sovereignty over vast portions of the South.  

In more recent years, nonstate militant groups as diverse as Lebanon's Hezbollah, Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) all established governments to meet the needs of local civilian populations during protracted armed struggles. Hezbollah, for example, runs schools and hospitals, collects garbage, and provides drinking water. Similarly, Colombia's FARC developed health and education systems, a police force, courts to adjudicate disputes, and even provided loans to farmers and small businessmen. Most recently, in the Ivory Coast, the northern rebellion led by Alassane Ouattara developed a security system widely considered more legitimate than the one it replaced, overseen by the now-deposed Laurent Gbagbo. The Ivorian rebels even collected taxes from the population and engaged in land tenure reform.

Loosely defined, "rebel governance" refers to the development of official structures and practices to regulate social and political life. This system can include a police force and judicial structure, health and educational systems, a tax regime to regulate commercial activities, and even representative structures that give civilians a voice in governing themselves. Likewise, symbolic practices, such as the adoption of flags or national anthems, also lend the rebels legitimacy.

The viability of a rebel government begins with territorial control. This is not simply a function of military strength, however, because once rebel armies gain control of a territory, they must figure out how to get the civilian population to identify with the rebel cause. Rebels thus turn to governance to address the needs of their fledgling constituencies. Controlling territory is merely a first-order condition that allows a rebel movement to provide local services -- but in and of itself, it is no substitute for actually providing those services.  

Many assume that when rebel groups do begin to govern, they are driven by ideological principles. During the Cold War, U.S. policymakers and analysts believed that leftist militants were more likely than ethnic or religiously motivated insurgents to provide basic services, because of the Maoist strategy of using the distribution of public goods as a tool for popular mobilization. More recently, many influential Western academics, including John Esposito, Karen Armstrong, and Matthew Levitt, have claimed that militant Islamist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah are more disposed to establish governments consistent with the Islamic practice of zakat, or almsgiving, which leads to the commingling of charitable work with more political activities. But even though ideology may provide a minimal sense of why rebel leaders are inclined to establish a government, it does not explain actual governmental performance or the legitimacy of a rebel government among the local population.  

This should not be surprising: governments are complex structures involved in varied negotiations with a number of social and political actors. Just as it can be difficult to predict the behavior of the U.S. government by asking which political party is in control, there is no single dimension that adequately explains why some insurgent organizations are able to develop effective governments, while others fail to provide even a minimum of social and political order.  

More important is the government's interaction with the society in which it holds sway. For example, the Tamil Tigers were forced to respond to the demands for basic services from a restive Tamil population that was accustomed to generous public goods from the Sri Lankan state prior to the conflict. In Sudan, the SPLA faced a civilian population divided along ethnic lines, a cleavage that eventually resulted in war between the two largest communities, the Dinka and the Nuer. In response, rebel leaders developed a unity government that brought together the southern population in their war against the Khartoum regime. Congo's Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) provides an interesting example of a group that attempted to develop a government but failed: wary of the RCD's sponsors in Rwanda and Uganda, the population in rebel-controlled areas violently rejected the organization's multiple efforts to set up a legitimate government.

The last, and arguably most decisive, step for rebel governments is gaining international recognition. Recognition is the cornerstone for participation in the global arena; without it, other states as well as international organizations and companies are unlikely to engage with rebel governments lest they fall into a gray zone of legality.

But recognition also has advantages for outside powers. International actors can benefit from being able to coordinate their activities with a legitimate authority, whether this means undertaking humanitarian aid projects, controlling a border between an insurgent area of control and a recognized national boundary, or conducting transnational commerce.  

Responding to a humanitarian crisis within a rebel zone of control poses unique challenges for aid organizations and international agencies. Navigating the many barriers placed by both the incumbent government and international law can make relief efforts less effective. For example, after the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, humanitarian organizations were hamstrung when the government in Colombo prevented them from working with Tamil Tiger relief operations. In Libya, humanitarian aid could only get to Benghazi with the support of NATO forces, a dangerous convergence of military and humanitarian agendas.

Unrecognized territories also make commerce harder, since the goods and resources brought out of insurgent-held territory are technically neither legal nor illegal, as international law applies only to formal states and not to areas under the control of insurgent organizations. A standardized process of recognition would allow the international community to regulate the numerous commercial activities that operate within these territories, distinguishing between those engaged in legitimate commerce and those pursuing more nefarious objectives.  

This is especially important for the Libyan opposition. As the war drags on, leaders in Benghazi and other opposition-controlled towns will need money. Without a formal process of recognition, oil produced in rebel-controlled areas cannot legally enter international markets. (The oil distribution agreement between the Libyan rebels and Qatar, which allows the parties to circumvent current international law, explains why Qatar was the second country to recognize the nascent rebel government.) 

Recognition of rebel governments is currently a unilateral affair, in which each state decides for itself. But this ad hoc process can cause even greater suffering to civilian populations residing in areas of rebel control as states support or undermine the rebellion according to individual political motives. Instead, international agencies and human rights organizations could work together to determine the legitimacy of rebel governments. Those deemed to be operating according to minimal standards could be offered a limited degree of recognition, thereby facilitating engagement with the international community. Organizations such as Geneva Call are already working to get rebel organizations to behave in line with the Geneva Conventions; to date, more than 40 militant groups have agreed to comply with the organization's Deed of Commitment to ban antipersonnel landmines.

Today, the anti-Qaddafi rebellion in Libya offers a new opportunity to examine the process of engaging with rebel governments. A formal system of recognition would not only allay concerns about the United States' motives in intervening but also offer some measure of protection to the country's civilians.


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