When to Overthrow your Government: The Right to Resist in the World’s Constitutions


On December 17, 2010, a young Tunisian street vendor protesting an abusive police official set off a wave of democratic uprisings throughout the Arab world.  In rising up against their governments, the peoples of the Arab countries were confronting an age-old problem in political theory: When is it acceptable to rise up against an unjust authority?  This question is not only of great importance to the peoples of the Middle East today but was also of profound interest to the American founders and, through them, has informed the very basis of modern constitutionalism.  It is perhaps unsurprising then that many countries’ constitutions allow the people to challenge or overthrow their governments under certain circumstances.  But to date, little systematic and empirical analysis has been done on the prevalence of this so-called right to resist in national constitutions or on what motivates constitutionmakers to adopt such a right.

This Article takes up the task.  It presents an original dataset on right-to-resist provisions in all national constitutions written since 1781, tracing such provisions’ historical trajectory and demonstrating how they have proliferated in recent decades.  The Article moreover provides the first-ever empirical exploration of why it is, exactly, that constitutionmakers give their people a constitutional mandate to overthrow or contradict their governing authorities—likely those very authorities elsewhere empowered by the same constitution.  Drawing on a range of real-world examples as well as regression analysis, we show that right-to-resist provisions are most likely to be first established following a disruption of the previous constitutional order, either through popular democratic transition or through a violent political break such as coup d’état.

These findings suggest that the constitutional right to resist serves a dual function, depending on its context.  On the one hand, the constitutional right to resist can represent a fundamentally democratic and forward-looking tool that constrains future government abuse, empowers the national citizenry, and acts as an insurance policy against undemocratic backsliding.  On the other hand, the right can serve as a backward-looking justification for coupmakers who seek retroactive legitimacy for whatever political crimes placed them in a position to make a new constitution in the first place.  Which of these two functions prevails may be in large part regionally determined.  Latin American constitutionmakers primarily adopted the right to resist in the aftermath of coups d’état, while in other parts of the world the right to resist functions as a precommitment device against undemocratic backsliding.

Our findings have significant implications for our broader understanding of constitutionalism.  Ostensibly, at the heart of any constitution lies a wish to bind the future on behalf of the present.  Yet our findings suggest that, at least in some cases, constitutional provisions may also serve the function of reinterpreting and justifying the past.  At least as far as the right to resist is concerned, constitutions are as much about yesterday as they are about tomorrow.

About the Author

Tom Ginsburg is Leo Spitz Professor of Law and Ludwig and Hilda Wolf Scholar at University of Chicago Law School and Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation. Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez is a Constitutional Research Fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and a J.D. Candidate, 2013, at the University of Chicago Law School. Mila Versteeg is Associate Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law.

By uclalaw