The internet does not give a satisfactory explanation as to the slightly differing nuances of these two notions.


When speaking politically, what is meant by "separatists" and "rebels" and where do they differ in ideology?

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    The actual difference may boil down to semantics. From their own perspective, they are "separatists" (or possibly "freedom fighters"). From the government's perspective, they are "rebels" (or possibly "terrorists"). Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 20:15
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    When I saw this on Hot Network Questions, I thought it would be about Star Wars. Didn't look closely enough at the site icon. Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 22:23
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    I find that the media often use "separatists" in a negative context and "rebels" in a somewhat more positive one, depending on the side of the story a particular news outlet is supporting. Unfortunately, I cannot find a really clear example at the current moment.
    – LLlAMnYP
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 9:54
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    @Thunderforge Separtists are secretly being run by the Sith. Rebels have Jedi in their midst. Oh, wait...
    – Machavity
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 12:27
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    Seperatists are rebels but not the other way round; for example a rebel group might want to reform the state rather than seperate from it; take for example the ANC in South Africa, they weren't attempting to create a seperate state, and so they weren't separatists, but trying to reform (or rather abolish) the politics of Aparthied in the state. Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 20:35

4 Answers 4


Separatists desire to be separate. Rebels desire to no longer be under control.

Rebels are outside of the system, and may or may not want the system to be the same. In Pakistan and Turkey rebels in the army aimed to replace leadership without meaning to fundamentally change the nature of their country. Mao's or Lenin's rebels aimed to remake the whole state.

Separatists but not rebels can work from within or almost within the system. Catalonia recently made a not quite legal bid to be separate from Spain, Texas polls about 10% for independence from the US, Scotland has held legal referendums to leave the UK.

In Sudan and Ireland rebels aimed for a separate state, making them both separatists and rebels.

  • @why en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_coups_in_Pakistan is what I mean. Some people (who were in the army at the time) took it upon themselves to change the government without bothering with laws.
    – user9389
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 19:25
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    We are talking about semantics here, but I would say that a military coup qualifies as a rebellion, as it is using armed force against the government.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 19:49
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    @why I haven't read any definition of rebellion that centers on death, and the Cambridge second definition seems to closely match my usage. I would also consider anything resting on men with guns at least potentially violent, so even if violence is a key part I wouldn't say it is totally incorrect. The "resistance" in the Oxford def doesn't match my useage without more context, but the context of the coups could easily be phrased as resistance.
    – user9389
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 20:00
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    @why The term "rebel" or "rebellion" is often used in a sense that is broad enough to encompass a "revolution", indeed, often one speaks of a "revolution" as being the objective of a rebellion. The words are not as clearly distinct as you claim that they are.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 20:39
  • FYI I'm not sure if including Texas and Scotland together is completely appropriate. If the Texas state legislature passed a measure that separated Texas from the US, the US federal government would almost certainly not honor that in any way. In the case of Scotland there has been devolution of powers over the years and there's some support in London for a separate Scotland. The US Civil War is what happened the last time several states voted to leave the US and I don't think things have changed so much that it wouldn't happen again. Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 15:26

In the context of independence movements, Separatists are individuals who want to take a landmass out of the administration/control of a country to form a separate country or to join the landmass to another country.

Separatists can be of two types:

  1. Violent Separatists are people who use violent means (usually armed struggle) as a tool to become separate from a country. E.g. Irish Republican Army.
  2. Peaceful Separatists are people who use politics to get separated from a country. E.g. Catalonian separatist movement.

Violent (armed) separatists are called rebels1, 2.

Note. Rebellion may exist external to the concept of Separatism. For instance, a group of army soldiers may commit mutiny against the army headquarters irrespective of the cause. That would also be a rebellion. E.g. Bangladesh Rifles revolt.

Note 2. A military coup to overthrow a government is considered as Revolution3, not a rebellion if the entire military is mobilized under the central military command. As a result executors of the coup do not get prosecuted in military courts. For instance, famous coup of Augusto Pinochet was a revolution, not a rebellion.

  • 3
    While I agree with the general idea of this answer (+1), I think it could be exposed in a clearer way; e.g.: "They are separated concepts, rebellion is about taking arms against the government while separatism is wanting to take away the control of a territory. You can have all combinations of the two concepts".
    – SJuan76
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 19:30
  • 3
    And a little nitpick: Sometimes separatists do not want the full independence of a territory but to change it to a different country (e.g. some reports point that Kosovar independentists -or at least some of them- favor a union with Albania).
    – SJuan76
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 19:33
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    @bytebuster The statement that "Armed Separatists are called rebels" does not, on its face, imply that all rebels are Armed Separatists, which is the converse of what was stated.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 20:37
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    I find the claim in Note 2 bizarre. The distinctive feature of a revolution, as opposed to other means of overthrowing a government, is that a significant portion of the general populace takes part in it. A military coup is quite the opposite: it is carried out by a small (though heavily armed) group. Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 14:46
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    @why unless the military forces make up a majority of the citizens of a country, then the military is exactly that: a small, though heavily armed, group. The group may indeed be numerous (the army can be a large one) but unless the army is a large percentage of the total population of the country it is attempting to take over, it is small.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 15:11

I would break them down like this


These people want to break away from the government and form a separate government and/or country. This may or may not involve violence. So, for instance, we have

  • Ireland - The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was a separtist group, wanting Ireland to be a separate country from the UK. They committed terrorist acts trying to keep Northern Ireland out of the UK
  • Catalonia - A region of Spain that is seeking independence. They held a referendum last year, and Spain tried to block it with police action. Spain refuses to recognize the referendum results.
  • The American Civil War - Sparked by a sharp division about slavery, states that wanted to retain slavery attempted to split into the Confederate States of America, sparking a civil war that saw them remain part of the United States and lose slavery


A rebel is not interested in splitting off from the government. A rebel either wants the government replaced, or simply overthrown.

  • Syria - The Syrian Civil War has seen multiple factions fighting for control of Syria. The goal of all opposition forces it the removal of Bashaar al-Assad, a man who has overseen a brutal regime that has, at times, been accused of using chemical weapons
  • Colombia - The rebel group FARC sought to overthrow the corrupt and brutal regimes of the past
  • Of course, the Syrian Civil War included separatists (notably Kurds); separation may become the goal if a rebellion cannot achieve a revolution. I would argue that the American Revolutionary War was mostly about separation from Britain, rather than trying to change the British government, but I think the English Civil War could be a good example of rebellion/revolution without a notable separatist component. Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 15:57
  • @Jon of All Trades: I'm inclined to agree. There were quite a few members of the Continental Army/Provisional Government who wanted to remain British and work out their differences. The big issue was that the Americans didn't want to be taxed without Parliamentary representation and didn't want to have parliamentary representation (because the votes were there to tax them). The Pressure that England put on the colony after the Boston Tea Party was the point where most of the leadership realized England had no interest in working things out civilly.
    – hszmv
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 18:08
  • @JonofAllTrades - It is certainly Turkey's position that the Kurdish forces fighting in Syria were/are separatists. Many of the Kurdish organizations sponsoring them do have Nationhood as a long-term political goal, but their motivations in Syria are significantly more complex than that. Most of the areas they are fighting in are already not under government control, and they primarily want the people who do control those areas to not be IS.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 18:24
  • Your second example of rebels seems to directly contradict your definition. If the ultimate goal was to gain independence, how is that an example of not being interested in splitting off from the government? Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 6:26
  • Since I didn't explain it well, I replaced the American Revolution with a clearer example
    – Machavity
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 12:16

Separatists and Rebels share a common goal but the means to that goal differs between the two. Separatists choose a non-violent way of protesting for their demands. On the other hand, rebels will believe in using weapons against the power they are fighting against. They are often labelled as terrorists by the occupying power. However they are considered Robin Hoods by their own people.

  • 2
    "Separatists choose a non-violent way of protesting for their demands." This is simply incorrect. Many separatists are also violent.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 20:55

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