The historical mapping of armed groups’ recognition
in Armed non-state actors and the politics of recognition
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The history of non-state armed groups since the end of the Second World War shows that they often follow a particular trajectory in international politics. While initially being denounced as ‘criminals’, ‘bandits’ or ‘terrorists’, they later often become recognised as regular political actors. How armed groups become legitimate actors in world politics has not yet been systematically analysed. We argue that the ultimate legitimation of such actors, their recognition as official actors by other governments, largely depends on historical timing in three consecutive eras. Two analytical perspectives are suggested. The first is the ‘politics of legitimacy’ of armed groups. Armed groups seek to justify the use of violence by referring to identities, institutions, interests and political aims. They make legitimacy claims and engage in strategies of self-legitimation or in the politics of legitimacy. The other perspective is the politics of recognition of the ‘international community’. States and international organisations are the major actors in the global state system that are able to confirm and validate legitimacy claims of armed groups through acts of recognition. The international recognition of armed groups is in part a reaction to the demands of these groups, but in part also motivated by a host of other facctors, which sometimes seem to defy any logic.

The core argument is that the politics of legitimacy and international recognition of armed groups is subject to historical change, depending on the international contexts of these policies. Armed groups need the right ‘world historical timing’ in order to be successful in achieving recognition. The chapter draws on a database on armed groups which was established by one of the authors and on both authors’ case-related fieldwork in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeastern Europe.


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