This article explores the relationship between the issue of government recognition and the applicability of international humanitarian law. Using the existence of competing governments in post-Gaddafi Libya as a case study, the article re-examines the meaning of the term “government” under public international law and proposes a distinct reading of what it means to be an effective government. It then considers how effectiveness can be used to differentiate between a de jure and a de facto government, and the international legal obligations of these two types of entities. Finally, the article applies this framework to the realm of the laws of war. In particular, it analyses how the existence of competing governments affects the scope of application of Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions and the possible existence of an international armed conflict.