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A resistance movement is a group or collection of individual groups, dedicated to fighting an invader in an occupied country or the government of a sovereign nation through either the use of physical force, or nonviolence. The term resistance is generally used to designate movement considered legitimate (from the speaker's point of view). Organizations and individuals critical of foreign intervention and supporting forms of organized movement (particularly where citizens are affected) tend to favor the term. When such a resistance movement uses violence, those favorably disposed to it may also speak of freedom fighters.

There has been a dispute between states since the laws of war were first codified in 1899. The Martens Clause was introduced as a compromise wording for the dispute between the Great Powers who considered francs-tireurs to be unlawful combatants subject to execution on capture and smaller states who maintained that they should be considered lawful combatants. More recently the 1977 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, recognised in Article 1. Paragraph 4 "... in which peoples are fighting against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes..." contains many ambiguities that cloud the issue of who is or is not a legitimate combatant. Hence depending on the perspective of a state's government, a resistance movement may or may not be labelled a terrorist group based on whether the members of a resistance movement are considered lawful or unlawful combatants and their right to resist occupation is recognized. Ultimately, the distinction is a political judgment.


The term "Resistance" originates from the self-designation of the French Resistance during World War II. It has become a generic term that has been used to designate underground resistance movements from any country.

While resistance existed prior to WWII, using the term "resistance" to designate a movement meeting the definition prior to WWII might be considered an anachronism.Although it is non-exclusive, the term is still strongly linked to the context of WWII.


Resistance movements can include any irregular armed force that rises up against an enforced or established authority, government, or administration. This frequently includes groups that consider themselves to be resisting tyranny. Some resistance movements are underground organizations engaged in a struggle for national liberation in a country under military occupation or totalitarian domination. Tactics of resistance movements against a constituted authority range from nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience, to industrial sabotage and guerrilla warfare, or even conventional warfare if the resistance movement is strong enough. Any government facing violent acts from a resistance movement usually condemns such acts as terrorism, even when such attacks target only the military or security forces. Resistance during World War II was mainly dedicated to fighting the Axis occupiers. Germany itself also had an anti-Nazi German resistance movement in this period. Although the United Kingdommarker did not suffer invasion in World War II, preparations were made for a British resistance movement in the event of a German invasion (see Auxiliary Units).


According to Joint Publication 1-02, the United States Department of Defensemarker defines a resistance movement as "an organized effort by some portion of the civil population of a country to resist the legally established government or an occupying power and to disrupt civil order and stability". In strict military terminology, a resistance movement is simply that; it seeks to resist (change) the policies of a government or occupying power. This may be accomplished though violent or non-violent means. A resistance movement is specifically limited to changing the nature of current power, not to overthrow it. The correct military term for removing or overthrowing a government is an insurgency.

Freedom fighter

Freedom fighter is another term for those engaged in a struggle to achieve political freedom for themselves or obtain freedom for others. Though the literal meaning of the words could include anyone who fights for the cause of freedom, in common use it may be restricted to those who are actively involved in an armed rebellion, rather than those who campaign for freedom by peaceful means (though they may use the title in its literal sense).

Generally speaking, freedom fighters are seen as people who are using physical force in order to cause a change in the political and or social order. This is done in response to oppression or perceived oppression by an internal or external body. . Notable examples include the South African Umkhonto we Sizwe, or the Irishmarker IRA, both of which were or are considered freedom fighters by supporters. However, a person who is campaigning for freedom through peaceful means may still be classed as a freedom fighter, though in common usage they are called political activists, as in the case of the Black Consciousness Movement. For example, in Indiamarker, freedom fighter is a term used to describe the followers of Mahatma Gandhi in the Indian Independence movement against British rule, which was fought by peaceful non cooperation with the British government in India without the use of arms (see Satyagrah).

People who are described as "freedom fighters" are often also referenced as assassins, rebels, insurgents, or terrorists. This leads to the aphorism "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". The degree to which this occurs depends on a variety of factors specific to the struggle in which a given freedom fighter group in engaged. During the Cold War, the term freedom fighter was used by the United Statesmarker and other Western Blocmarker countries to describe rebels in countries controlled by communist states or otherwise under the influence of the Soviet Unionmarker, including rebels in Hungarymarker, the anti-communist Contras in Nicaraguamarker, UNITA in Angolamarker, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, and the multi-factional mujahideen in Afghanistanmarker and Jammu and Kashmirmarker. In the media, an effort has been made by the BBC to avoid the phrases "terrorist" or "freedom fighter," except in attributed quotes, in favor of neutral terms such as "militant", "guerrilla", "assassin", "insurgent", "paramilitary" or "militia."

A freedom fighter is different from a mercenary as they gain no direct material benefit from being involved in a conflict, though they may have no personal reason for being involved. Thus they are not considered mercenaries under the Geneva Convention and thus may in certain circumstances be protected by it (Mercenaries are not protected under the Geneva Convention and can be tried as criminals).

Common weapons

Partisans often use captured weapons taken from their enemies. They also may use improvised weapons such as Molotov cocktails or IEDs.

Examples of resistance movements

Pre-20th century

  • Sons of Liberty - - Revolutionary patriot group that embraced Republicanism in the United States during the 1760s and 1770's and routinely engaged in acts of violent resistance against British government officials and prominent loyalist sympathizers. The Boston branch of the Sons of Liberty met under the Liberty Treemarker, from which they would post messages or hang and burn effigies of their enemies.

Pre-World War II

World War II

Planned resistance movements
  • The Auxiliary Units, organized by Colonel Colin Gubbins as a potential British resistance movement against a possible invasion of the British Isles by Nazi forces, note that it was the only resistance movement established prior to invasion, albeit the invasion never came.
  • Volunteer Fighting Corps

Post-World War II

Notable individuals in resistance movements

World War II (anti-Nazi, anti-Fascist)

Other resistance movements

See also


  1. Rupert Ticehurst (references) in hist footnote 1 cites The life and works of Martens are detailed by V. Pustogarov, "Fyodor Fyodorovich Martens (1845-1909) — A Humanist of Modern Times", International Review of the Red Cross (IRRC), No. 312, May-June 1996, pp. 300-314.
  2. Rupert Ticehurst (references) in hist footnote 2 cites F. Kalshoven, Constraints on the Waging of War, Martinus Nijhoff, Dordrecht, 1987, p. 14.
  3. Gardam p. 91
  4. Khan, Ali (Washburn University - School of Law). A Theory of International Terrorism, Connecticut Law Review, Vol. 19, p. 945, 1987
  5. Alain Rey, Dictionary historic de la language french
  6. Mirriam-Webster definition
  7. BBC guideline


  • Gardam, Judith Gail (1993). Non-combatant Immunity as a Norm of International Humanitarian,Martinus Nijhoff ISBN 0792322452.
  • Ticehurst, Rupert. The Martens Clause and the Laws of Armed Conflict 30 April 1997, International Review of the Red Cross no 317, p.125-134

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