Legal identity under insurgencies and unrecognised states

Research project
Active research
Project period
2021 - 2024
Project owner
School of Global Studies

Short description

This project studies political entities that are not (yet) or no more recognised as a sovereign state but nonetheless issue legal identity documents (e.g. birth and death certificates, passports) to the people under their control. We explore what shape legal identity takes in two contexts, what implications it has for the people affected, and how these people navigate major political shifts:
1) the Syrian Interim Government (which used to issue legal identity documents but now faces defeat); and
2) the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (which has become an established but widely unrecognized state that issues legal identity documents in its own name).


Coming up

Special issue launch: Legal identity under insurgencies and unrecognised states

Online Seminar Series in Statehood, Sovereignty and Conflict (ECPR)
When: Wednesday 17 April 1 PM CET

Chair: George Kyris, University of Birmingham
Editors: Marika Sosnowski, University of Melbourne
Bart Klem, University of Gothenburg

Each author will give a 5 minute overview of the issue they cover, followed by a 5 minute Q&A.

Recent outputs and Updates

This special issue in the journal Citizenship Studies is a first major output of the project. It puts the phenomenon on legal identity under unrecognised states on the map with a conceptual introduction, 9 contributions covering the Caucasus, India, Myanmar, Syria, Ukraine and Western Sahara, and a afterword.  As a run-on to this, contributing authors have posted blog posts at the “Armed Groups and International Law” Blog in March 2023. As an introduction, Marika Sosnowski and Bart Klem posted this blog: “Legal identity in a looking glass world”.

Emmanuel Achiri and Bart Klem published an article titled “Navigating the legal liminalities of a de facto state: Migrant precarity and placeholder identity papers in Northern Cyprus” that is part of contributing to a forthcoming special issue on unusual places of refuge in Migration Studies.

Bart Klem presented his Cyprus-related work at the MEDUSA network at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya and at the Anthropology Department of the Autonomous University Barcelona (October 2023).

Bart Klem and Marika Sosnowski organised a panel “The lived legal realities of de facto sovereign states” at the 2023 annual conference of the European Consortium of Political Research (ECPR) in Prague.

As part of the Gothenburg Science Festival, Bart Klem presented a visual pitch to a panel on Aesthetic Objects and Citizenship (22 April 2023), which as part of the Thingstigate Research project headed by our colleague Tintin Wulia.

In this presentation for the Eastern Mediterranean University (Famagusta, TRNC) (26 October 2022), Bart Klem related his research on the performative aspects of sovereignty (of the Tamil nationalist movement in Sri Lanka) to the situation in Northern Cyprus.

In this presentation for the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness at Melbourne University (26 August 2021), Marika Sosnowski discussed “citizenship constellations” in Syria, and the interplay between the Syrian state and non-state actors in establishing legal identity. 

In this working paper “The right to have rights: Legal Identity Documentation in the Syrian Civil War” (GIGA Focus Nahost, 4), Marika Sosnowski and Noor Hamadeh review the wide range of political entities that have assumed state-like authority in Syria.

The findings of this research project feed directly into our teaching of the Erasmus Mundus Master’s Programme in Human Rights Policy and Practice, where Bart Klem teaches several lectures, seminar and simulation exercise on the legal identity under unrecognized states.


This project studies insurgencies and unrecognised states that issue legal identity documents to populations under their control. In their pursuit of becoming recognised as sovereign states, these movements often act like states, even if they are not (yet) recognized as such. As part of that agenda, they may provide the people they seek to govern with newly invented ID cards (or passports) and life-cycle documentation (certificates for birth, marriage, death), thus apportioning rights and duties to the people that find themselves under their control.
These practices have massive practical implications for the people concerned, and profound conceptual consequences for the way we understand insurgency, legality and sovereignty.

Legal identity comprises a documented relationship between a person, the law and the state. Hannah Arendt famously defined legal identity as the right to have rights. As such, it underpins virtually every aspect of human welfare. It is explicitly identified in the Sustainable Development Goals as a target for 2030 (“to provide legal identity for all”, SDG 16:9), but it is in fact a precondition for the SDGs at large: without legal identity, the whole notion of a rights-based approach is unmoored.

Why does it matter?

The issuance of legal identity by insurgent movements and unrecognised states has major humanitarian ramifications. Legal identity documentation issued by insurgencies may help people living amidst civil war secure certain entitlements such as freedom of movement or access to humanitarian aid but not having births, deaths or other life-cycle events registered can have major negative consequences too, including personal security when the fortunes of the insurgency change and/or the risk of statelessness.

These issues also have major academic relevance because they raise pertinent empirical and conceptual questions about the underpinnings of state sovereignty, subjectivity and the foundation of law.

What parts of the world do we study?

This study consists of two complementary cases:

  • A government-in-exile with a military wing, recognised only fleetingly by international actors, that went quite a long way in issuing legal identity documents but now faces defeat: the Syrian Interim Government.
  • An entity that has converted itself into a resilient, but by and large unrecognized, de facto state: the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus.

Importantly, our objective is not to compare these cases – they are quite obviously different. Rather, we treat these two cases as existing on a spectrum that also comprises other cases (e.g. Taiwan, Palestine, Somaliland, Abkhazia) to tell a larger story about how legal identity issues are shaped by the evolution of insurgent movements.

What do we want to know?

Our three research questions are:

  1. To what degree do these three political entities issue forms of legal identity to the people they seek to govern, and what material shape does this legal identity take?
  2. What possibilities or threats does such legal identity offer these people?
  3. How do these people navigate the changes that take place when the position of the political entity that issues them legal identity transforms in fundamental ways?

How will seek to answer these questions?

Each of the case studies will encompass detailed qualitative fieldwork: observations in one specific community, key informant interviews, and snowball sampling of respondents.
Understanding the tensions, slippages and ruptures around legal identity requires a long-term perspective. The sovereign underpinnings of law imply a sense of permanence. The contexts we study are of interest precisely because this permanence is unsettled. The central conundrum of legal identity in the context of civil war comprises the instability of the sovereign frameworks in which identity documents are anchored. What is a perfectly valid and useful legal identity document at one moment may at a later stage become quite useless, or even a dangerous liability.

To capture the longue durée dynamics around legal identity, we will use this field work to construct biographies of people (life histories in relation to legal identity) and of documents (how their form and chains of authorization have evolved over time).

The below video clip provides a visual introduction of the project (August 2021). Note that this was an early iteration. Several aspects have changed since then.

Navigate to video: Video presentation of the project
Video (23:21)
Video presentation of the project