Yet, the truth is that there is nothing new about Kosovo’s independence. Macedonians need not worry, it would seem. While, under international law, Albanians in its western parts can claim to be insurgents (as they have done in 2001 and, possibly, twice before), they cannot aspire to be a National Liberation Movement and, if they secede, they are very unlikely to be recognized.
To start with, there are considerable and substantive differences between Kosovo’s KLA and its counterpart, Macedonia’s NLA. Yugoslavia regarded the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA or UCK, in its Albanian acronym) as a terrorist organization. Not so the rest of the world. It was widely held to be a national liberation movement, or, at the very least, a group of insurgents.
Between 1996-9, the KLA maintained a hierarchical operational structure that wielded control and authority over the Albanians in large swathes of Kosovo. Consequently, it acquired some standing as an international subject under international law.
Thus, what started off as a series of internal skirmishes and clashes in 1993-5 was upgraded in 1999 into an international conflict, with both parties entitled to all the rights and obligations of ius in bello (the law of war).
I. Insurgents in International Law
Traditionally, the international community has been reluctant to treat civil strife the same way it does international armed conflict. No one thinks that encouraging an endless succession of tribal or ethnic secessions is a good idea. In their home territories, insurgents are initially invariably labeled as and treated by the “lawful” government as criminals or terrorists.
Paradoxically, though, the longer and more all-pervasive the conflict and the tighter the control of the rebels on people residing in the territories in which the insurgents habitually operate, the better their chances to acquire some international recognition and standing. Thus, international law actually eggs on rebels to prolong and escalate conflicts rather than resolve them peacefully.
By definition, insurgents are temporary, transient, or provisional international subjects. As Antonio Cassese puts it (in his tome, “International Law”, published by Oxford University Press in 2001):
“…(I)nsurgents are quelled by the government, and disappear; or they seize power, and install themselves in the place of the government; or they secede and join another State, or become a new international subject.”
In other words, being an intermediate phenomenon, rebels can never claim sovereign rights over territory. Sovereign states can contract with insurrectionary parties and demand that they afford protection and succor to foreigners within the territories affected by their activities. However, this is not a symmetrical relationship. The rebellious party cannot make any reciprocal demands on states. Still, once entered into, agreements can be enforced, using all lawful sanctions
Third party states are allowed to provide assistance – even of a military nature – to governments, but not to insurgents (with the exception of humanitarian aid). Not so when it comes to national liberation movements.
II. National Liberation Movements in International Law
According to the First Geneva Protocol of 1977 and subsequent conventions, what is the difference between a group of “freedom fighters” and a national liberation movement?
A National Liberation Movement represents a collective – nation, or people – in its fight to liberate itself from foreign or colonial domination or from an inequitable (for example: racist) regime. National Liberation Movements maintain an organizational structure although they may or may not be in control of a territory (many operate in exile) but they must aspire to gain domination of the land and the oppressed population thereon. They uphold the principle of self-determination and are, thus, instantaneously deemed to be internationally legitimate.
Though less important from the point of view of international law, the instant recognition by other States that follows the establishment of a National Liberation Movement has enormous practical consequences: States are allowed to extend help, including economic and military assistance (short of armed troops) and are “duty-bound to refrain from assisting a State denying self-determination to a people or a group entitled to it” (Cassesse).
As opposed to mere insurgents, National Liberation Movements can claim and assume the right to self-determination; the rights and obligations of ius in bello (the legal principles pertaining to the conduct of hostilities); the rights and obligations pertaining to treaty making; diplomatic immunity.
Yet, even National Liberation Movements are not allowed to act as sovereigns. For instance, they cannot dispose of land or natural resources within the disputed territory. In this case, though, the “lawful” government or colonial power are similarly barred from such dispositions.
III. Internal Armed Conflict in International Law
Rebels and insurgents are not lawful combatants (or belligerents). Rather, they are held to be simple criminals by their own State and by the majority of other States. They do not enjoy the status of prisoner of war when captured. Ironically, only the lawful government can upgrade the status of the insurrectionists from bandits to lawful combatants (“recognition of belligerency”).
How the government chooses to fight rebels and insurgents is, therefore, not regulated. As long as it refrains from intentionally harming civilians, it can do very much as it pleases.