Civil war

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A civil war is an armed conflict on the territory of a state between different groups. A generally accepted definition that goes beyond this description does not yet exist. Interfering in civil wars from abroad is common.

Civil war parties can be armed ethnic groups , militias , political parties , partisan associations , private armies or warlords . Conflicts between the armed forces of a state government and one or more organized groups of insurgents ( rebels , guerrillas ) are also referred to as civil war. The fighting groups may be concerned with regional autonomy , with rule over the entire national territory, or with secession from one state, the establishment of their own state or connection to another state. The reasons for such goals can be political, ethnic, religious or social in nature. A civil war is often waged without regard to the rules of international law. Such rules were created by the United Nations after World War II .

Concept development and attempts at definition

According to the political scientist David Armitage, the formulation of a generally valid definition of the term civil war is problematic in two respects: First of all, civil war is a " fundamentally controversial term ", the use of which contains a value judgment and is therefore extremely prone to conflict. In addition, civil wars did not have an immutable nature, but occurred in a variety of historical relationships, from which one had to abstract for the definition. The concept is thus subject to an intellectual genealogy . "The very use of the term (or the renunciation of it) is part of the conflict" (Armitage). Because whether one uses the term civil war , could "depend on whether one is a ruler or a rebel". And the “battle for names” could continue long after the armed conflict has ended. Because the controversial term is about the elements of the dispute; it has not only moral and political connotations, but also legal implications. First and foremost, the civil war is an experience of those who wage or suffer it - long before it is declared to be internationally.

Historians such as Henning Börm also point out that civil war is always an extreme form of “social disintegration”, which is characterized by groups that have previously been members of the same community (or citizens of the same state) use violence against each other : “People who were previously understood to be members of the same group must now be excluded expressly and with cruel consequence; Civil war is therefore a violent expression of extreme social disintegration, whereby the other side is denied legitimacy. Moreover, the conflict may be asymmetrical, but it has leaders and structures on both sides; The main fight against is political control of the community, although this need not be an end in itself. ”The legitimation of this fundamental breaking of taboos is always time-consuming; the legitimacy of the other side is regularly denied. Since one can also accuse the internal enemy of having decided on his side of the conflict and thus of being a “traitor”, civil wars are often characterized by particular cruelty.

In ancient times, the Greeks knew the term stasis , which originally meant "to take a stand", thus in general internal conflict and differences of opinion among interest groups, right up to violent and bloody confrontations, including what was later called civil war. The classical account of this problem, which plagued the Greek Poleis again and again, was provided by Thucydides in his work on the Peloponnesian War (Book 3.79-84).

From the Roman formulation bellum civile - literally "civil war" - which first appeared in the 1st century BC. Appears, the terms for it are derived from the European languages ​​(Italian guerra civile , French guerre civil , Spanish guerra civil , English civil war ). However, "the core of the term ... is a paradox and even a contradiction in terms". For what can be civil or civil about a war ? And the parties no longer behaved towards each other like citizens of a community .

Civil wars in the Islamic cultural area are particularly pronounced under the name Fitna .


Civil wars are characterized by the use of military force in a domestic political context. The overthrow of a dictator , a coup d'état or a coup attempt can lead to civil war, and every revolution can also be described as a civil war. The violent suppression of autonomy or secession aspirations by ethnic or national minorities can also cause a civil war. Often civil wars arise or escalate during interstate wars as a result of interventions by foreign powers (see also fifth column ).

The number of civil wars worldwide grew significantly in the second half of the last century. One reason is the large number of new, still unstable and heterogeneous states in the former colonial areas. From this point of view, civil wars can be viewed as an expression of a political and violent process in which statehood is consolidated. Between 1816 and 2001, out of a total of 484 wars worldwide, 296 were civil wars, of which 109 were civil wars. About two-thirds of the 259 wars since 1945 have been civil wars. After 1989 it was 95 percent of all wars.

Often when a civil war is resolved, the seeds for its continuation in another civil war are already in place: unfinished business, injustice, reason for vengeance. In this way “the sequence becomes a cycle”. Apparently, "being civilized meant being capable of civil war and being fatally prone to it."

Civil war in constitutional law

The armed struggle of insurgents against the government is illegal, depending on the constitution of the state concerned under the provisions of general criminal law or the martial law . It is considered high treason .

In the case of a successful struggle between the rising classes to reorganize or reorganize the state order, one speaks of a revolution and thus ultimately takes on the view of the winner.

Civil war in international law

International law is primarily the law of interstate relations, the legal order that applies between states . It regulates what is not stipulated in the domestic law of the individual sovereign states. The focus of international law is the prevention of violence under international law and the limitation of violence in armed conflicts between states. The international law prohibition of violence (Art. 2, Item 4 of the Charter of the United Nations ) does not apply to civil war. In the further development of this martial law, however, rules with international validity have been codified that relate to civil wars, armed conflicts that take place within states. Some principles of prisoner-of-war law and the protection of civilians have also been declared binding for civil war.

Outside intervention

Under an intervention , the intervention of states or international organizations in matters is generally understood that the sole responsibility of a nation state subject. This sole responsibility was derived from the concept of sovereignty during the development of the nation-state system in the 19th century . Today's international law has not yet developed a generally applicable definition of what exactly an intervention is. Existing international regulations are interpreted differently in national practice.

In civil wars, the concept of intervention loses its legal clarity. It is not always an uprising against the government of a country. When rival civil war parties exist and political power is thus divided between different groups, it is usually very difficult to determine which political group has sovereignty. This also makes it difficult to define what is to be regarded as an interference with sovereign rights.

Interstate prohibition of intervention

Article 2, paragraph 4 of the UN Charter requires its member states to refrain from any violent interference that is directed against the territorial integrity or political independence of a state. The UN General Assembly developed details of this rule in the Friendly Relations Declaration of 1970. With regard to civil wars, it states:

  • Every state has the duty to refrain from any violent measure which deprives the peoples to whom the explanation of the principle of equal rights and self-determination refers of their right to self-determination, freedom and independence.
  • Each state has the duty to refrain from setting up or promoting the formation of irregular armed forces or armed gangs, including mercenaries, intended for incursions into the territory of another state.
  • Every state has the duty to refrain from organizing, inciting or supporting acts of civil war or terrorism in another state and from participating in or tolerating organized activities in its territory which are aimed at the commission of such acts, if those in that state Actions referred to in paragraph include the threat or use of force.

Permitted interventions

Despite the general, fundamental prohibition of intervention, interventions are permitted under special conditions.

  • In the event of a threat to international peace, a breach of the peace or an act of aggression, the UN Security Council may adopt collective measures that are carried out as a collective intervention by several member states. It must be justified with general interests worthy of protection.

Whether a foreign state may intervene in a civil war at the request of the legal government is disputed. Support is inadmissible if the intervening state has forcibly removed the previous government and insurgents have formed against the new government. Examples are the interventions of Vietnam in Cambodia in 1979 and that of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the same year. Premature recognition of insurgents is contrary to international law.

Humanitarian Intervention

Main article: Humanitarian intervention

Intervention for humanitarian reasons may be permissible under international law if it is about protecting one's own citizens who are in danger in a foreign state. This can be an embassy occupation or an airplane hijacking. Permission from the government of the country concerned is required for such intervention.

Intervening to protect foreign citizens is contrary to international law. Such interventions may only be decided by the United Nations Security Council and only initiated as a collective security measure.

Recognition of insurgents

If insurgents have maintained control of a considerable part of the national territory for a long period of time, they can be recognized as a warring party. Recognition as a belligerent party leads to the entry into force of the law of war and neutrality . Your leadership can be recognized by other states as a de facto government .

Protection through international humanitarian law

The formal concept of war in classical international martial law is a war between states. The concept of war was further developed in the Geneva Conventions for the Protection of War Victims of 1949 and their Additional Protocols from 1977. Since then, international humanitarian law must also be observed in the event of a civil war . The Geneva Conventions use the technical term “non-international armed conflict” to describe civil war.

States are fundamentally responsible for compliance with the humanitarian rules . In addition, the Geneva Conventions codified the individual responsibility of the highest state organs, which is reflected in international criminal law .

Scope and principles of the Geneva Conventions

Article 1, paragraph 2 of Additional Protocol II of 1977 explains the scope of the Geneva Conventions. They do not apply to cases of internal unrest and tension such as riots, isolated acts of violence and other similar acts that are not considered to be armed conflicts. The prerequisite for their application is that a civil war party is capable of sustained, coordinated combat operations and can ensure compliance with humanitarian martial law. For this to happen, the civil war party must have gained effective power over part of the national territory.

The additional protocol also contains some principles that also apply to civil war:

  • Protection of prisoners (no torture, hostage-taking or degrading and degrading treatment, no conviction and execution without trial in an ordinary court)
  • Care of the wounded
  • The civilian population is spared

However, it can happen that the conflicting parties voluntarily declare that they are ready to comply with the other protective provisions. This was the case, for example, during the civil wars in Algeria, Congo, Yemen and Nigeria.

Despite the standardization of the concept of war and the standardization of humanitarian protection, the rules of international law for international armed conflicts differ in other areas from the rules that apply to armed conflicts within states. As a result, there are two different systems of international legal regulation, one for international conflict and one for non-international conflict.

Genocide convention

Responsibility under international law, which is different from that defined in the Additional Protocols, was developed with the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide . The International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court negotiated violations of this convention in civil wars .

Expressions since 1945

As after the First World War, numerous conflicts arose after the Second World War due to the changed political situation, which were carried out with armed violence. The danger of a nuclear war and the prohibition of the use of force in interstate relations by the United Nations caused the great powers to avoid open armed conflicts among themselves. Interstate wars have become rarer and the conflict has shifted to the Third World . Support from parties to the civil war should strengthen one's own position. Civil war has therefore often become a substitute for interstate war (see proxy war ) .

One focus is civil wars, in which one fights for government power, whereby this is often only the superficial goal. Actually, the struggle is for the social system, for the social order. Another focus is civil wars in which ethnic or religious groups fight for greater autonomy within their central state, for secession for education or to regain their own independent state, or to join a neighboring state.

Some civil wars were only decided by open military intervention from outside, for example in Greece in 1949 or in Malaya in 1957 . India's intervention in the Bangladesh war paved the way for the secession of East Pakistan ( Bangladesh ) to achieve national independence.

Liberation Movements

National wars of independence against European colonial powers also had the character of civil wars if they were directed against ruling classes who collaborated with the colonial power . In this they resembled the partisan wars in the occupied territories of World War II, in which the occupying powers were fought. After the struggle for independence and the disempowerment of the older ruling class, the predominantly national revolution in the former colonies turned into a social revolution. Examples are Vietnam , Algeria , Guinea-Bissau , Angola , Mozambique .

Until 1977, wars of liberation against a ruling colonial power were considered civil wars under international law, as the events took place on the territory of a single state until independence was recognized. Since the Geneva I Additional Protocol , they have been on an equal footing with international conflicts. This is to ensure that humanitarian martial law must be applied in a people's struggle for independence. However, this regulation is only binding on those states that have signed this additional protocol.

Civil wars in former colonies

After national independence has been achieved in a former colony, the government is not necessarily made up of the majority of the population. It can therefore lead to a civil war in which an oppressed majority tries to revolt against an autochthonous minority that is in power due to a historical pre-colonial rule structure. In Rwanda, for example, the uprising of the black Hutu farmers against the lighter-skinned warrior caste of the Tutsi was successful one year after gaining independence in 1962. In Zanzibar , just one month after national independence in 1963, the predominantly black lower classes overthrew the rule of the Arabs, who had been indigenous to the region for centuries.

In various Portuguese colonies in the context of independence, civil wars broke out between left and right-wing parties for political power, for decades in Angola and Mozambique . Indonesia used the civil war in Portuguese Timor in 1975 to legitimize the occupation of the country.

Wars between divided states

The distinction between war and civil war is problematic when divided states are engaged in an armed conflict among themselves, as happened in Vietnam and Korea . Both cases are mostly classified as international conflicts.

The division of Korea into a Soviet and a US occupation zone led to a rivalry between a western-oriented and a communist leadership group, both of which wanted to force national reunification under their own leadership. From this the Korean War developed , an international war under the sign of the East-West conflict .

After the defeat of the French colonial power in French Indochina against communist resistance, the independence of Vietnam was declared. At the Indochina Conference in 1954, Vietnam was provisionally divided into a northern and a southern zone, in which a ceasefire would apply and joint elections were to take place. However, the US prevented the country from being unified and maintained a satellite regime in the southern zone . When this threatened to topple in the guerrilla war, the United States started a war in Vietnam. The north was supported by the Soviet Union and other communist countries. The US was finally forced to withdraw after ten years. Because of the participation of the two great powers, the Vietnam War is not viewed as a civil war, but as an international war.

Regime Change Actions

Overthrowing unpopular political systems by supporting and funding insurgent groups is one of the indirect interventions that contradict the United Nations' prohibition of intervention. Examples in Central America are Operation PBSUCCESS in Guatemala, carried out by the CIA in 1954, or American support for the paramilitary Contras against the socialist Sandinista government of Nicaragua in the Contra War in the 1980s.

Examples of civil wars

Battle of Marston Moor in the English Civil War

In the past, the Thirty Years War was also known as the German Civil War. The wars between sovereign places in the area of ​​today's Switzerland were also often referred to as civil wars in the historiography of the 19th century, which continues to this day. This overstretched the concept of civil war and made it meaningless.

Ernst Nolte coined the rather metaphorical designation of the two world wars as " European Civil War ", a work whose short version triggered the so-called historians ' dispute in an FAZ article from June 6, 1986 on "The past that will not pass" .

Civil wars with strong foreign participation

US troops in Vladivostok during the Russian Civil War (1918)

See also


  • Giorgio Agamben : stasis. The civil war as a political paradigm . Frankfurt 2016.
  • Ulrich Albrecht : Civil War , in: Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism , Vol. 2, Argument-Verlag, Hamburg 1995, Sp. 372–374.
  • David Armitage : Civil War. On the nature of domestic conflicts. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2018.
  • Rudolf Bindschedler: The regulation of non-international armed conflicts under international law . In: Festschrift Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte on the completion of the 70th year of life. Berlin 1977, p. 21 ff.
  • Daniel Bultmann: Civil War Theories . Constance 2015, ISBN 978-3-867645973 .
  • Henning Börm , Johannes Wienand (Ed.): Civil War in Ancient Greece and Rome. Contexts of Disintegration and Reintegration . Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart 2016.
  • Stefan Deißler: Civil wars of their own. On the persistence and finiteness of domestic violent conflicts . HIS Verlagsgesellschaft, Hamburg 2016, ISBN 978-3-86854-297-4 .
  • Sabina Ferhadbegović, Brigitte Weiffen (ed.): Telling civil wars. On the course of non-civil conflicts . Konstanz University Press, Konstanz 2011.
  • Markus Holzinger: Martial violence and the dynamics of civil wars in the “peripheries”. About the myth of global modernity , in: Archive for Social History , 57, 2017, pp. 347–364.
  • Stathis Kalyvas : The Logic of Violence in Civil War . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2006.
  • Aldo V. Lombardi: Civil War and International Law , Berlin 1976, ISBN 3-428-03809-6
  • Stephan Maninger: Ethnic conflicts along the development periphery . Munich 1998.
  • Edward Newman, Karl DeRouen (Eds.): Routledge Handbook of Civil War . Routledge, London 2016, ISBN 978-1138684584

Web links

Wiktionary: civil war  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Civil Wars  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. See Peter Waldmann : Civil War - Approaching an Elusive Concept . In: Heinrich Krumwiede, Peter Waldmann (ed.): Civil wars. Consequences and regulatory options , Nomos, Baden-Baden 1998, pp. 15–36.
  2. David Armitage: Civil War. On the nature of domestic conflicts. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2018. P. 28 f.
  3. David Armitage: Civil War. On the nature of domestic conflicts. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2018. p. 26 ff. There Armitage also quotes Nietzsche : “All terms in which a whole process is semiotically summarized defy definition; only definable is that which has no history . ”Emphasis added by Armitage. Nietzsche, Friedrich: On the genealogy of morals , in: Works in 3 volumes, Bd. 2. ed. v. K. Schlechta; Hanser, 1954. p. 820.
  4. See also Stathis Kalyvas: Civil Wars. In: Carles Bois, Susan Stokes (Eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Politics. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2007. pp. 416-434.
  5. David Armitage: Civil War. On the nature of domestic conflicts. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2018. p. 269.
  6. David Armitage: Civil War. On the nature of domestic conflicts. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2018, p. 277.
  7. Henning Börm: Murderous fellow citizens . Steiner, Stuttgart 2019, p. 35f.
  8. Henning Börm : Civil Wars in Greek and Roman Antiquity: Contextualizing Disintegration and Reintegration. In: Henning Börm, Marco Mattheis, Johannes Wienand (Eds.): Civil War in Ancient Greece and Rome . Steiner, Stuttgart 2016, pp. 15-20.
  9. Basically here is Hans-Joachim Gehrke : Stasis. Investigations into the internal wars in the Greek states of the 5th and 4th centuries BC Chr.Beck , Munich 1985.
  10. David Armitage: Civil War. On the nature of domestic conflicts. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2018. p. 33.
  11. David Armitage: Civil War. On the nature of domestic conflicts. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2018. p. 270.
  12. David Armitage: Civil War. On the nature of domestic conflicts. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2018. p. 34.
  13. David Armitage: Civil War. On the nature of domestic conflicts. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2018. p. 197.
  14. Klaus Jürgen Gantzel, Torsten Schwinghammer: The wars after the Second World War 1945-1992: Data and Tendencies , Vol. 1, Münster 1995, ISBN 3-88660-756-9 , p. 117
  15. David Armitage: Civil War. On the nature of domestic conflicts. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2018. p. 16.
  16. David Armitage: Civil War. On the nature of domestic conflicts. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2018. p. 101
  17. David Armitage: Civil War. On the nature of domestic conflicts. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2018. S. 114 f.
  18. Resolution 2625 of the UN, German version: Declaration on principles of international law relating to friendly relations and cooperation between states in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations , online document
  19. Wichard Woyke : hand dictionary international politics , licensed edition for the Federal Agency for Civic Education, Opladen 2000, ISBN 3-89331-489-X , p. 224f.
  20. ^ Additional Protocol of June 8, 1977 to the Geneva Convention of August 12, 1949 on the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II)
  21. Klaus Jürgen Gantzel, Torsten Schwinghammer: The wars after the Second World War 1945-1992: Data and Tendencies , Vol. 1, Münster 1995, ISBN 3-88660-756-9 , p. 120
  22. Klaus Jürgen Gantzel, Torsten Schwinghammer: The wars after the Second World War 1945-1992: Data and Tendencies , Vol. 1, Münster 1995, ISBN 3-88660-756-9 , p. 117
  23. Schindler, in: Staatslexikon, column 1051
  24. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan told the BBC: “When we have had conflicts in Lebanon and other countries, we have spoken of civil war; this is much worse. ”in: Cordesmann, Anthony, Davies Emma D .: Iraq's Insurgency and the Road to Civil War. 2 vols. Westport, Connecticut; Praeger Security International, 2008. Vol. 2, p. 393.
  25. ^ Pew Research Center [1]