Compliant Rebels

About the author(s):

Katharine Fortin is an Associate Professor at Utrecht University where she teaches IHL and IHRL. Before joining Utrecht University, she worked at the ICTY, ICC and Norton Rose Fulbright. She is the author of The Accountability of Armed Groups under Human Rights Law (Oxford University Press, 2017) which won the 2018 Lieber Prize. She has written widely about the framework of law that applies to armed groups in non-international armed conflicts and is one of the editors of the Armed Groups and International Law blog.

Compliant Rebels

The recent publication of ‘Compliant Rebels’ by Hyeran Jo is an important contribution to the literature on armed groups and international law. One of the most interesting aspects about the book for lawyers is that Hyeran Jo is a political scientist. As a result, unlike existing legal literature on compliance (which has mainly focused on issues such as the ownership of norms, engagement and legitimacy), Jo looks at particular features of armed groups (e.g. their organisation, motivation and relationship with local communities) to ask ‘how and why would a compliant rebel emerge?’.

Scope of the research

Recognising that it would be too ambitious to focus all international norms, the book focuses on three types of violation: violence against civilians, violence against children and violence against detainees. Specifically, the book examines the killing of civilians by rebel groups, the use of child soldiers by rebel groups and granting of access to detention centres. In looking at these three areas, Jo tries to identify what distinguishes a rebel group that complies with international law from a rebel group that violates the law. Jo also pays attention to the factors that have lead a particular armed group to start complying with the law after a period of non-compliance and vice versa.

Structure of the book

The book is structured as follows:


  • Introduction
  • Background
  • A Theory of Rebel Compliance


  • From Theory to Evidence
  • Civilian Killing
  • Child Soldiering
  • Access to Detention Centres


  • Repertoires of Rebel Compliance
  • Conclusion

Rebel Groups and International Law Database

In conducting her analysis, Jo draws upon and presents data from the Rebel Groups and International Law Database (RGIL) which was built for the book project. The database contains both qualitative and quantitative information about rebel group’s institutional and organizational profiles and their humanitarian and human righsts behaviour. Spanning from 1989-2009, the database contains a list of legal commitments made by rebel groups and detailed reports on their behaviour. It also links in other datasets and databases related to the topic of rebel groups and international law.


In terms of conclusions, the book presents two central findings. First the book presents evidence that compliant rebels do exist. Second, it finds that compliant rebels emerge when they seek legitimacy in the eyes of key political ‘audiences’ that care about values consistent with international law. According to Jo, legitimacy-seeing armed groups usually have political constituencies from whom the rebels seek recognition or support. Such constituencies may be at home or abroad, and often have leverage or influence over the groups themselves in terms of how they wage their armed struggles.

Interestingly Jo finds that rebel groups with a political wing, secessionist agenda and support from abroad or civil society are more likely to comply to the standards contained in IHL and IHRL. In contrast legitimacy-indifferent groups which have little to no political motivation are less likely to take the route of compliance.

At the end of the book, Jo reflects on what her findings mean for engagement strategies. Apart from the conclusion that it will be easier to engage with some rebel groups than others, Jo recommends  that a more nuanced understanding of an armed group’s specific motivations can be critical for finding pathways to engagement that promote a group’s compliance with the law. Compliant Rebels is published by Cambridge University Press and available here.

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