Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Civil War Definition:

Armed conflict by identifiable faction(s) within a nation which threatens or has broken down an existing government, law and order.

Related Terms: Revolution, Coup d'etat, War

Luttwak defines a civil war as follows:

"... actual warfare between elements of the national armed forces leading to the displacement of a government."

That is not entirely accurate as not all civil wars result in the "displacement of a government" although it would be accurate to state that the aim of any civil war is to displace an existing government.

Perhaps a more accurate definition is that of Justice Slynn in R v Secretary of State:

"(C)ivil war (is) when law and order have broken down and where ... every group seems to be fighting some other group or groups in an endeavour to gain power."

Rapalje and Lawrence's 1883 law dictionary had an American twist to the definition of civil war:

"An internecine war in which the opposing forces both belong to the same country or nation (e. g. the revolutionary war prior to the declaration of independence, or the late rebellion prior to the (American) president's proclamation of August 16th, 1861)."


  • Luttwak, E., Coup D'état: A Practical Handbook (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979), page 24.
  • Rapalje, Stewart and Lawrence, Robert, A Dictionary of American and English Law, Volume I (Jersey City: Frederick D. Linn & Co. Law Publishers and Booksellers, 1883), page 215.
  • R v Secretary of State, 37 I.L.M. 1091 (1998)

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