Open Access

The Libyan Uprising and the Right of Revolution in International Law

   | Jan 24, 2018


Despite the ubiquitous coverage of the Libyan revolution throughout the last six months, very little has been said regarding the legal foundations for the rebels’ actions. Within the international legal framework, it must be asked whether the Libyan people even had a legal right in the first place to overthrow the Gaddafi regime. In fact, the existence of a right to rebel under international law is very much an unsettled matter. Among the sources of international law, a right to rebel is not enumerated in any of the principal international instruments. In truth, the only significant mention of the right is a passing but ambiguous reference in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A customary right of revolution is similarly absent, as many nations criminalize treason and other insurrectionary activities. Instead, if such a right exists in international law, it must derive from the well-enshrined right of self-determination. Th is right would thus constitute an additional exception to international law’s general prohibition on the use force, standing alongside self-defense and Security Council peace enforcement. Yet establishing a right of revolution would mark a significant departure from these other exemptions. In essence, the right of revolution represents an allowance for non-state actors to resort to force unilaterally for the protection of human rights. For this very reason, contemporary international law likely does not recognize a popular right to revolt. In light of international law’s fi rm restrictions on lawful uses of force, there is no evidence that the law currently acknowledges a novel exception for the individual enforcement of human rights. Th us, in the absence of a change in the law, the proper legal remedy for the Libyan people was not rebellion but rather an appeal to the international community.