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Rebel Group Compliance with International Humanitarian Law and Foreign State Sponsorship

Hannah Roesch Read, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Providing assistance to rebel groups enables foreign governments to become indirectly involved in conflicts, minimizing investments of blood and treasure, as well as the risk of coming into direct conflict with the rebel group’s target. However, democracies may be susceptible to public backlash if they back rebel groups that defy human rights norms, such as by violating international humanitarian law (IHL). This three-article dissertation analyzes the relationship between rebel behavior and sponsorship decisions both by comparing sponsorship models for democracies and autocracies, as well as examining sub-state influences on democracies’ sponsorship decisions. Through analysis of a cross-national dyadic dataset, I find that, in the aggregate, sponsorship decisions by democracies and autocracies are motivated by geopolitical concerns and that democracies do not systematically condition support on rebel behavior. By examining public opinion in the United States with a survey experiment, I find that citizens themselves are only more disproving of U.S. support for rebels that target civilians when respondents perceive a conflict to be of trivial importance for the U.S.’s national security. Building upon these findings, I conduct a case study of the 2011 decision by the U.S. to assist the Libyan opposition in its attempt to overthrow the Qaddafi regime. The results of this analysis indicate that democracies are more likely to condition support on rebel behavior when the conflict is human rights-oriented, illustrating the need to consider the goals and the covert or overt nature of interventions in future rebel sponsorship research. The overarching implications of this research are that democracies behave much like autocracies in their rebel sponsorship decisions when under threat and when their actions are less likely to draw public scrutiny. However, democracies may be more likely to assist rebels that respect human rights norms when conflicts are framed as humanitarian and carried out under the public eye by multilateral coalitions.

Subject Area

International law|Political science|Public policy|International Relations|Organizational behavior

Recommended Citation

Read, Hannah Roesch, "Rebel Group Compliance with International Humanitarian Law and Foreign State Sponsorship" (2022). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI29321053.