Humanitarian intervention is a concept that is used for denoting the application of a military force of one state against another, with a public statement and recognition that the goal of the force is ending the violations of human rights. While there is some variation in how humanitarian interventions are defined, there are some essential characteristics of the term. For instance, the threat and application of military force is the key feature of humanitarian interventions.
The process is called an intervention because it is associated with a great degree of interference of one state into the affairs of another through deploying military forces to operate on a territory of a sovereign country. A third party can be motivated to intervene not on the basis of direct strategic threats but rather concerning humanitarian objectives.
The use of humanitarian interventions has only been put forward as a legal doctrine fairly recently. For example, during the Cold War, it was rather writers and critics that wanted to justify the use of humanitarian interventions than states. However, such countries as the USA, the UK, and France intervened to protect the population of Shiites and Kurds in Iraq in 19911. The forces of the countries were the first to proclaim safe havens and force Iraqi troops to leave the areas without offering any legal justifications of their actions as they felt that there was no need for it.
The measures to prevent Iraqi repression were generally understood as imperative for ensuring that a dominant force does not diminish the human rights of a minority population. Deemed ‘not unambiguously illegal,’ humanitarian intervention became a subject of open interpretation for countries with several vital provisions maintained. For example, humanitarian interventions are justified when there is compelling evidence of extreme humanitarian distress requiring urgent relief, the inability or unwillingness of another state to deal with the distress, and the absence of proactive alternative intervening. Thus, the meeting of these criteria, which was heavily supported by the UK, can be used as a justification for the legality of humanitarian interventions.
The example of Kosovo may be considered in regard to the issue of humanitarian intervention because of a significant fundamental split in opinion regarding its legality. When the Operation Allied Force was undertaken as a response to the repressions of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo by the federal government of Yugoslavia, the views were split.
The legal justification for the intervention was associated with the emerging risks that “serious economic, social, and political difficulties, including ethnic rivalries and territorial disputes” would have adverse consequences for Allied Security2. Thus, in order to overt the potential crises and instability, the Alliance could intervene in their management despite the fact that Article 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibited the “threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”3
Debates regarding the intervention of NATO into the Kosovo conflict existed because there was some degree of ambivalence in the official statements as to how the organization justified its actions. If NATO were more proactive in establishing a legal doctrine for its intervention, there would be fewer debates. However, those supporting the decision of NATO provided multiple arguments for the legality of the Alliance’s actions. For example, despite the advice of the Security Council (as well as the resolutions passed under Chapter VII) for the Yugoslavian government to stop its repressions, they did not obey.
Furthermore, Yugoslavia failed to support the agreement between the state and the Organization for Security and Cooperation under Resolution 1203 (1998). Thus, the inaction of Yugoslavia to mitigate the conflict peacefully and with help from NATO, granted the Alliance to facilitate a humanitarian intervention without providing a specific legal explanation for it. Deciding whether humanitarian intervention is legal is a matter of one’s interpretive choices of international law, which means that it could be both legal and illegal4.
In international law, there is no distinct framework to suggest under which circumstances humanitarian interventions are considered legal. Despite the UN Security Council working on a resolution to allow acting in situations when there is a threat to peace and subsequent act of aggression, there is still not enough affirmative votes from member-states. Debates regarding humanitarian interventions are expected to persist, especially in regards to the 1945 UN Charter, article 2(7) of which stated that there is nothing that could authorize third-party interventions in matters that belong to the domestic jurisdiction of any country.
Therefore, it can be concluded that humanitarian interventions are illegal in broad terms simply because there is no international law to guide them. However, as evidenced by the example of Kosovo, countries have justified their interventional actions on the basis of the existing violations of the rights of humanity. Therefore, despite being ‘illegal’ per se, humanitarian intervention is possible in the case when a party exercises its authority in terms of morally valuable procedures, as in the Kosovo case. However, a humanitarian intervention that has no morally valuable ground is in itself abusive and undermines the principles of international order.
Gray, C., International Law and the Use of Force, 4th edn., Oxford, Oxford Scholarly Authorities on International Law, 2018.
Henkin, L., ‘Kosovo and the Law of “Humanitarian Intervention”’, The American Journal of International Law, vol. 93, no. 4, 1999, pp. 824-828.
Hurd, I., ‘Is Humanitarian Intervention Legal? The Rule of Law in an Incoherent World’, Ethics & International Affairs, vol. 25, no. 3, 2011, pp. 293-313.
- C. Gray, International Law and the Use of Force, 4th edn., Oxford, Oxford Scholarly Authorities on International Law, 2018, p. 7.
- C. Gray, International Law and the Use of Force, 4th edn., Oxford, Oxford Scholarly Authorities on International Law, 2018, p. 8.
- L. Henkin, ‘Kosovo and the Law of “Humanitarian Intervention”’, The American Journal of International Law, vol. 93, no. 4, 1999, p. 824.
- I. Hurd, ‘Is Humanitarian Intervention Legal? The Rule of Law in an Incoherent World’, Ethics & International Affairs, vol. 25, no. 3, 2011, p. 293.