Academic journal article Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy

Humanitarian Intervention and International Law

Academic journal article Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy

Humanitarian Intervention and International Law

Article excerpt

Nothing seems to have divided international lawyers as much in recent years as the question of humanitarian intervention. Discussions on the subject seem to produce an explosive mixture of ethics, politics, and law; and it is not always clear where scholars are drawing the dividing lines among the three, if at all.


The United Nations Charter envisages lawful use of force in only two cases: (i) in individual or collective self-defense; (1) or (ii) as a result of a mandate from the United Nations Security Council ("Security Council") acting under Chapter VII of the Charter. (2) Some international lawyers have claimed that a state may also use force to rescue or evacuate its nationals who are in danger abroad. (3) Further, a standard textbook on international law advocates that international use of force without Security Council mandate may be justified: (i) in self-defense (which includes collective self-defense, protection of a state's nationals abroad under certain conditions, and possibly anticipatory self-defense) (4), (ii) with the genuine consent of the territorial state, (5) or (iii) in necessary and proportionate response to an unlawful but small-scale armed action by another state. (6) The author in question, however, does not consider legally permissible the use of force to stop atrocities within other states. (7)

It has, nevertheless, been argued by some that interfering by force in the internal affairs of another state to prevent an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe is justified. (8) According to this argument, international law is not set in concrete and must adapt to meet new situations. The U.N. Charter cannot cover every eventuality that occurs and individual states must have the legal power to intervene to prevent genocide or widespread crimes against humanity until such time as the Security Council takes control. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervention in Kosovo in 1999 was said to be justified on the grounds of such a humanitarian crisis coupled with non-compliance by the parties with Security Council Resolutions. (9)

Other scholars are more skeptical. They maintain that the U.N. Charter allows for no exceptional cases. Further, they claim that because the "enforcers" of the law have a right of veto in the Security Council, international law is controlled by the whim of the few. That procedure is said to amount to a new form of imperial colonialism. (10) Regardless of these viewpoints, the peace agreement secured between the NATO states and Yugoslavia following the Kosovo intervention was later ratified by the Security Council in Resolution 1244 of June 10, 1999.

Admittedly, the concepts of self-defense, consent of the territorial state, and "atrocities" can be very subjectively interpreted and thus used as a pretext for intervention for other reasons. Such conduct would be an abuse of law. The potential for abuse, however, is not a reason to say that the right does not exist as a matter of law.


Article 2, paragraph 4, of the Charter provides: "All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations." (11) Does this provision mean that one can threaten or use force for other purposes? (12) The International Court of Justice has answered this question in the negative. It held that the United Kingdom's forcible intervention in Albanian waters violated Article 2, paragraph 4, rejecting the United Kingdom's argument that its actions did not threaten the territorial integrity or political independence of Albania. (13)

Article 2, paragraph 7, goes on to provide: "Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any State . …

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