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On the Rights of Warlords: Legitimate Authority and Basic Protection in War-Torn Societies


This article examines the legitimacy of the use of force by armed nonstate actors resisting the imposition of state rule over territories they control. We focus on the rights of warlords: subnational strongmen who seek autonomy within geographically demarcated territories, but not secession or control of the state itself. We argue that behind the resistance to state-building lies a twofold question of legitimate authority: the authority of states to consolidate power within their own internationally recognized borders and the authority of warlords to resist that expansion, by force if necessary, when it threatens social order and the protection of basic rights. This article draws on just war theory to develop a set of conditions under which such resistance may be justified, explores the argument's practical implications for state-building under the tutelage of third parties (e.g., the United Nations), and demonstrates its empirical relevance through an application to Afghanistan.

Corresponding author
Robert A. Blair is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs, Brown University (
Pablo Kalmanovitz is Associate Professor of Political Science, Universidad de los Andes (
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Thanks to José Hernán Aguilar, Nehal Bhuta, Shawn Fraistat, Claudio López-Guerra, Catherine Lu, Frédéric Mégret, Carlo Nasi, Kevin Russell, Daniel Viehoff; participants in the 2014 Global Justice after Colonialism conference at McGill University; audiences at the Centro de Investigaciones para el Desarrollo Económico (CIDE) in Mexico, the European University Institute in Florence, and the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá; and to the four anonymous reviewers for APSR. Special thanks to Tatiana Neumann for her help and support throughout. Authors are listed alphabetically. Both contributed equally.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

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American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
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