Armed Humanitarian Intervention and International Law: A Primer for Military Professionals

By Rice, Daniel; Dehn, John | Military Review, November-December 2007 | Go to article overview

Armed Humanitarian Intervention and International Law: A Primer for Military Professionals


Rice, Daniel, Dehn, John, Military Review


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ALTHOUGH THE LAW of armed conflict adds an element of humanity to warfare while high-tech weapons with precision munitions add the perception of control, war is still armed conflict that causes both intended and unintended death and destruction. Therefore, we ought to be cautious about when we think about using military force. This is particularly true when we consider undertaking missions or wars for humanitarian reasons.

This article examines the norms that govern when to initiate humanitarian intervention with military force. It also discusses accompanying considerations. In doing so it reviews applicable international law as an aspect of contemporary international relations. A comprehensive review of international relations and legitimate uses of military power could--and does--occupy entire books. (1) This discussion, however, limits itself to reviewing international moral and legal norms and how they affect decision-making about using force to intervene. Readers will note that these norms are the subject of scholarly and political debate. As such, their practical implications are constantly undergoing refinement.

Armed humanitarian intervention is the use of military force by a nation or nations to stop or prevent widespread, systematic human-rights abuses within the sovereign territory of another nation. An example is the action NATO took to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. In this context, military force refers to operations involving direct attacks against persons and places. It does not refer to other military operations, such as providing humanitarian aid, peacekeeping, or stability and support operations that might result in the need to use force after units peacefully arrive with the consent of the host nation or parties to a conflict.

Military professionals should appreciate how civilian leaders determine when military force should be used. The meaning and effect of international law sometimes points only vaguely to the correctness of possible alternatives. As author Michael Desch remarks in Bush and the Generals, "The line between [civilian political and military operational] realms is not always perfectly clear, and sometimes military considerations affect political decisions, and vice versa." (2) As military considerations likely play into decisions about armed humanitarian intervention, military officers should at least have an understanding of the issues. Commanders and staffs, particularly at strategic and operational levels, should be able to clearly identify, understand, and account for the practical, legal, and moral considerations that affect the decision to use force for humanitarian purposes, especially as they apply to the particular environment.

First, we consider circumstances under which armed humanitarian intervention might be morally justified. We then discuss the legality of such action. Subsequently, we look at the United Nations Charter and discuss its key provisions, its domestic and international status as law, and the recent emergence of a concept called the "responsibility to protect." We canvass practical considerations bearing on the decision to conduct an armed humanitarian intervention, and in doing so, we discuss the ways in which norms and political and practical considerations affect the ends, ways, and means of humanitarian intervention. Finally, we draw conclusions about the importance of necessity and proportionality, two traditional legal constraints on the use of force, that military professionals should find important and useful.

The Justice of Armed Humanitarian Intervention

Whether armed humanitarian intervention is morally justified, and if so, under what conditions, is among the most difficult questions to answer in international law and relations. All nations have rights of sovereign power, which has traditionally meant that they exercise exclusive political control within their borders. …

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