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 (or not yet/fully) 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 three contexts, what implications it has for the people affected, and how these people navigate major political shifts:
1) the Kachin Independence Organisation/Army in Myanmar (which recently started issuing legal identity documentation);
2) the Syrian Interim Government (which used to issue legal identity documents but now faces defeat); and
3) the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (which has become an established but widely unrecognized state that issues legal identity documents in its own name).



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 is of crucial significance, because it 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 three complementary cases:

  • An insurgency that has recently started to experiment with issuing legal identity documentation in response to intensified state violence: the Kachin Independence Organisation cum Army (KIO/A) in Myanmar.
  • 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 three 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 three 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).



Video (23:21)
Video presentation of the project