Skip to main content Accessibility help

Note on humanitarian intervention

  • Robert Kolb


Owing to widespread atrocities witnessed in the last decade of the twentieth century, and in particular those associated with the NATO intervention in Kosovo, the issue of humanitarian intervention has been thrust into the political and doctrinal limelight. In the legal sense, humanitarian intervention is one form of foreign forcible intervention.2 It may be defined as the use of force in order to stop or oppose massive violations of the most fundamental human rights (especially mass murder and genocide) in a third State, provided that the victims are not nationals of the intervening State and there is no legal authorization given by a competent international organization, such as, in particular, the United Nations by means of the Security Council. Such humanitarian intervention need not take the form of action by a single intervening State; but it must be unilateral. Thus, if several States pool their military resources together to intervene in a foreign territory, that constitutes a collective intervention. However, the intervention is unilateral, in that it is coercive action taken by some States acting as would do a single subject. Moreover, humanitarian intervention takes place only insofar as no consent is given by the third State. If consent is given, there is no need legally to invoke the concept of humanitarian intervention; rather, it will be intervention by invitation.



Hide All

1 See e.g. Tesón, F. R., Humanitarian Intervention: An Inquiry into Law and Morality, 2nd ed., Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, 1997.

2 On the different forms of intervention, see Oppenheim, L., in Jennings, R. and Watts, A. (eds), International Law, 9th ed., London, 1992, p. 427ff.

3 Such an authorization may be given by a regional organization or agency subject to the authorization of the UN Security Council: Article 53 of the UN Charter. See Ress, G., “Article 53 of the Charter”, in: Simma, B. (ed.). The Charter of the United Nations: A Commentary, Oxford, 1995, p. 722ff.

4 On the concept of humanitarian intervention, see e.g. Beyerlin, U., “Humanitarian intervention”, EPIL, Vol. II (E-l), (1995), p. 926ff.

5 See Randelzhofer, , “Article 2(4)”, in Simma, , op. cit. (note 3), p. 123126. On terminology, see also). Salmon (ed.), Dictionnaire de droit international public, Brussels, 2001, p. 610.

6 On these principles of criminal jurisdiction, see e.g. Oppenheim, , op. cit. (note 2), pp. 469472.

7 See Yearbook of the Institute of International Law, Resolutions, 1957–1991, Paris, 1992, Articles 1 and 2, p. 209. See in particular Article 2(2): “Without prejudice to the functions and powers which the Charter attributes to the organs of the United Nations in the case of violation of obligations assumed by the members of the Organization, States, acting individually or collectively, are entitled to take diplomatic, economic and other measures towards any other State which has violated the obligation set forth in Article 1 [respect for human rights], provided such measures are permitted under international law and do not involve the use of armed force in violation of the Charter of the United Nations. These measures cannot be considered an unlawful intervention in the internal affairs of that State”. It can be seen that the use of force is not generally prohibited, but only that force which would be “contrary to the Charter of the United Nations”. As the exception with regard to the powers of the Security Council is stated at the very beginning, it may be wondered whether the Institute intended by this formulation to leave open the issue of humanitarian intervention. This seems probable.

8 Bluntschli, J. C., Le droit international codifié, Paris, 1870, p. 101 (Article 110): “Lorsque les Etats rassembles en congrès général européen sont d'accord sur certaines dispositions, celles-ci deviennent obligatoires pour tous les Etats europeens”. See also Article 12, Ibid., p. 56.

9 On that practice, see Grewe, W. G., “The epochs of international law”, Berlin / New York, 2000, p. 489ff and Rougier, A., “La théorie de l'intervention d'humanite”, Revue générale de droit international public, Vol. 17 (1910), p. 472ff. For a discussion of humanitarian intervention in the old textbooks of international law, see the overview given by Oppenheim, L. in Roxburgh, F. (ed.), International Law, 3rd ed., Vol. I, London, 1920, p. 221. See also, in particular, Stowell, E. C., Intervention, Washington D.C., 1921 and International Law, New York, 1931, p. 349ff., and Fauchille, P., Traite de droit international public, Vol. I, Paris, 1922, p. 570ff.

10 Diplomatic interventions were, however, also undertaken on behalf of Jews, e.g. those in Rumania. See Rougier, , op. cit. (note 9), p. 476ff.

11 Thus, Grewe op. cit. (note 9), p. 490, writes: “This development [towards humanitarian intervention] was consistent with the intrinsic formative rules of the age. The humanitarian idea belonged to the moral and ideological substance of the society of civilized nations. The ‘international law’ of the ‘civilised nations’ rested upon a spiritual base of which esteem of human life was an integral part. The introduction of humanitarianism into international law brought about a linkage between international law and the general constitutional concepts of civic liberalism. The ‘droits humains’ (‘human rights’) that were entrusted to international law were the most basic of the basic rights; they were those general human rights that were considered particularly fundamental and indispensable: the rights to life, to liberty and to the rule of law”.

12 First Platform of International Law, London, 1876, p. 297.

13 International Law, Oxford, 1880, p. 247.

14 Elements of International Law, London, 1836, section 69.

15 The Principles of International Law, 5th ed., London, 1913, section 66. See also Stowell, , op. cit. (note 9).

16 Traité de droit international public europeen et americain, Vol. I, Paris, 1885, p. 663.

17 Le droit international de l'Europe, Berlin / Paris, 1883, p. 113.

18 Das Völkerrecht, Berlin, 1898, p. 122.

19 Précis du droit des gens, Paris, 1877, p. 223.

20 Stockton, C. H., Outlines of International Law, New York / Chicago / Boston, 1914, p. 100.

21 See Nys, E., Le droit international, Vol. II, Brussels, 1912, p. 232, quoting Arntz. See also, e.g. Hall, W. E. in Higgins, P. (ed.), A Treatise on International Law, 8th ed., Oxford, 1924, p. 344.

22 “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”.

23 “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security”.

24 See Review of the International Commission of Jurists, 06 1972, p. 57ff. See also Franck, T. and Rodley, N., “After Bangladesh: The law of humanitarian intervention by armed force”, American Journal of International Law, Vol. 67, 1973, p. 275ff.; Teson, , op. cit. (note 1), p. 200ff.

25 See Chatterjee, S. K., “Some legal problems of support role in international law: Tanzania and Uganda”, International and Comparative Law Quarterly, Vol. 30, 1981, p. 755ff.; Teson, op. cit. (note 1), p. 159ff.

26 See Klintworth, G., Vietnam's Intervention in Cambodia in International Law, Canberra, 1989; Leifer, M., “Vietnam's intervention in Kampuchea: The rights of State v. the rights of people”, in Forbes, I. and Hoffmann, M. (eds), Political Theory, International Relations and the Ethics of Intervention, Basingstoke, 1993, p. 145ff.

27 See United Nations, The United Nations and Somalia, 1952–1996, New York, 1996, United Nations Publication, sales no. E.96.1.8. For the “humanitarian intervention” aspect, see e.g. Gordon, R. E., “Humanitarian intervention by the United Nations: Iraq, Somalia and Haiti”, Texas International Law Journal, Vol. 31, 1996, p. 43ff.

28 See e.g. Cahin, G., “L'action internationale au Timor oriental, AFDI, Vol. 46, 2000, p. 139ff.; Rothert, M., ”United Nations intervention in East Timor“, Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, Vol. 39, 2000, p. 257ff.

29 Bettati, M. and Kouchner, B., Le devoir d'ingérence: peut-on les laisser mourir?, Paris, 1987. See also Legros, P. and Libert, M., L'exigence humanitaire: le devoir d'ingérence, Paris, 2000.

30 See especially the Ministerial Declaration of the Meeting of Foreign Ministers of the Group of 77, New York, 24 09 1999, <>. The Ministers stressed the need to maintain clear distinctions between humanitarian assistance and other activities of the United Nations. They rejected the so-called right of humanitarian intervention, which had no basis in the UN Charter or in international law”.

31 See e.g. Brownlie, I., “Humanitarian intervention”, in Moore, J.N. (ed.), Law and Civil War in the Modern World, Baltimore / London, 1974, p. 217ff; Brownlie, I., “Thoughts on the kind-hearted gunmen”, in: Lillich, R. (ed.), Humanitarian Intervention and the United Nations, Charlottesville, 1973, p. 139ff.; Randelzhofer, , op. cit. (note 5), p. 124, with numerous references; Abi-Saab, G., “Cours général de droit international public”, RCADI, Vol. 207, 1987–VII, p. 374–5.

32 See e.g. Reisman, M. and McDougal, M., “Humanitarian intervention to protect the Ibos”, in Lillich, R. B. (ed.), Humanitarian Intervention and the United Nations, Charlottesville, 1973, p. 177.

33 See e.g. Fonteyne, J. P., “The customary international law doctrine of humanitarian intervention: Its current validity under the UN Charter”, California Western International Law Journal, Vol. 4, 1974, pp. 203ff. and 255. See also, more recently, Tomuschat, C., “General course on public international law”, RCADI, Vol. 281, 1999, p. 224–6, part c. p. 224. It may also be recalled that the ICJ, in the Nicaragua case (1986), rejected the justification offered by the United States for its intervention in that region, namely, inter alia, for the protection of human rights: Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. United States of America), Merits, ludgment, ICJ Reports 1986, pp. 134–5. The Court said in substance that unilateral use offeree is not admissible for the protection of human rights. As this was no extreme case and no argument of humanitarian intervention had been made, the Court just reaffirmed the general rules, based on the protection of territorial integrity. No certain inferences can be gained on the problem of humanitarian intervention by that dictum.

34 See Tomuschat, , loc. cit. (note 33).

35 Charney, J. I., “Anticipatory humanitarian intervention in Kosovo”, American Journal of International Law, Vol. 93, 1999, p. 834ff.

36 Valticos, N., “Les droits de l'homme, le droit international et l'intervention militaire en Yougoslavie”, RGDIP, Vol. 104, 2000, p. 5ff.

37 Nolte, G., “Kosovo und Konstitutionalisierung: Zur humanitären Intervention der NATO-Staaten”, ZaöRV, Vol. 59, 1999, p. 941ff.

38 Reisman, W. M., “Kosovo's antinomies”, American Journal of International Law, Vol. 93, 1999, pp. 860–62.

39 Wedgwood, R., “NATO's campaign in Yugoslavia”, American Journal of International Law, Vol. 93, 1999, p. 828ff.

40 Hilpold, P., “Sezession und humanitäre Intervention: Völkerrechtliche Instrumente zur Bewältigung innerstaatlicher Konflikte”, AJPIL, Vol. 54, 1999, p. 529ff.

41 Köck, H. F., “Legalität und Legitimität der Anwendung militärischer Gewalt”, AJPIL, Vol. 54, 1999, p. 133ff.

42 Picone, P., “La guerra del Kosovo e il diritto internazionale generale”, Rivista di diritto internazionale, Vol. 83, 2000, p. 309ff.

43 Simma, B., “NATO, the UN and the use of force: Legal aspects”, European Journal of International Law, vol. 10, 1999, p. 1ff.

44 Weckel, P., “L'emploi de la force contre la Yougoslavie ou la Charte fissurée”, RGDIP, Vol. 104, 2000, p. 19ff.

45 Cassese, A., “Ex iniuria ius non oritur: Are we moving towards international legitimation of forcible humanitarian countermeasures in the world community?”, European Journal of International Law, Vol. 10, 1999, p. 23ff. Cassese, A., “A follow-up: Forcible humanitarian countermeasures and opinio necessitatis”, European Journal of International Law, Vol. 10, 1999, p. 791ff.

46 Currie, J., “NATO's humanitarian intervention in Kosovo: Making or breaking international law?”, CYIL, Vol. 36, 1998, p. 303ff.

47 Henkin, L., “Kosovo and the law of humanitarian intervention”, American Journal of International Law, Vol. 93, 1999, p. 824ff.

48 See Kolb, R., “Du droit international des Etats et du droit international des hommes”, Revue africaine de droit international et de droit comparé, Vol. 12, 2000, p. 226ff. and 232–5.

49 International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, The Responsibility to Protect, International Development Centre, Canada, December 2001, also available at: <>.

50 Ibid., § 2.28–2.33.

51 Ibid., § 4.11.

52 Ibid., Basic Principles, p. XII, Articles 1–3. For a commentary on these criteria, see § 4.18ff. of the Report.

53 See on this concept, inter alia: (1) on the Greco-Roman period: Clavadetscher-Thürlemann, S., Polemos dikaios und bellum iustum: Versuch einer Ideengeschichte, Zurich, 1985; Mantovani, M., Bellum lustum: Die Idee des gerechten Krieges in der römischen Kaiserzeit, Berne / Francfurt-am-Main, 1990; Albert, S., Bellum iustum: Die Theorie des gerechten Krieges und ihre praktische Bedeutung für die auswärtigen Auseinandersetzungen Roms in republikanischer Zeit, Lassleben, 1980; Hausmaninger, H., “Bellum iustum und iusta causa belli im älteren römischen Recht”, Oesterreichische Zeitschrift für öffentliches Recht, 1961, Vol. 11, p. 335ff.

(2) On the Middle Ages, see: F. H. Russell, The lust War in the Middle Ages, Cambridge / London, 1975; Hubrecht, G., “La guerre juste dans la doctrine chrétienne, des origines au milieu du XVIe siècle”, Recueil de la Société lean Bodin, 1961, Vol. 15, p. 107ff.; Salvioli, J., Le concept de guerre juste d'après les écrivains antérieurs à Grotius, 2nd. ed., Paris, 1918; Vanderpol, A., La doctrine scolastique du droit de la guerre, Paris, 1925, p. 28ff.; Vanderpol, A., Le droit de la guerre d'apres les theologiens et les canonistes du Moyen Âge, Paris / Brussels, 1911; Beestermller, G., Thomas von Aquin und dergerechte Krieg: Friedensethik im theologischen Kontext derSumma Theologicae, Cologne, 1990.

(3) In general, see: Haggenmacher, P., Grotius et la doctrine de la guerre juste, Paris, 1983, pp. 250ff. and 597ff;. Haggenmacher, P., “Mutations du concept de guerre juste de Grotius à Kant”, Cahiers de philosophie politique et juridique, No. 10, 1986, pp. 117122; Elshtain, J. B., The just War Theory, Oxford / Cambridge (Massachusetts), 1992; Regout, R., La doctrine de la guerre juste de Saint Augustin à nos jours, Paris, 1935; Beaufort, D., La guerre comme instrument de secours ou de punition, The Hague, 1933; Walzer, M., Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 2nd ed., New York, 199; de la Briere, Y., Le droit de juste guerre, Paris, 1938; Draper, G. I. A. D., “The just war doctrine”, Yale Law Journal, Vol. 86, 1978, p. 370ff; K. Szetelnicki, Bellum iustum in der katholischen Tradition, Fribourg, 1992.

(4) On the relationship with doctrines of other religions or ideologies, see: Kelsay, J. and Johnson, J. T., Just War and Jihad: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on War and Peace in Western and Islamic Tradition, New York / London, 1991; Steinweg, R., Der gerechte Krieg: Christentum, Islam, Marxismus, Francfurt-am-Main, 1980.

54 See the different contributions in Kaufmann, A. and Backmann, L. E. (eds), Widerstandsrecht, Darmstadt, 1972.

55 Report, op. cit. (note 49), quoted Article 1, and § 4.18ff.

56 Ibid., § 4.19.

57 Ibid., § 4.20: “It is important to make clear both what these two conditions include and what they exclude. In the Commission's view, these conditions would typically include the following types of conscience-shocking situation:

— those actions defined by the framework of the 1948 Genocide Convention that involve threats to or actual loss of life on a large-scale;

— the threat or occurrence of large scale loss of life, whether the product of genocidal intent or not, and whether or not involving state action;

— different manifestations of ‘ethnic cleansing’, including the systematic killing of members of a particular group in order to diminish or eliminate their presence in a particular area; the systematic physical removal of members of a particular group from a particular geographical area; acts of terror designed to force people to flee; and the systematic rape for political purposes of women of a particular group (either as another form of terrorism, or as a means of changing the ethnic composition of that group);

— those crimes against humanity and violations of the laws of war, as defined in the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols and elsewhere, which involve large scale killing or ethnic cleansing;

— situations of state collapse and the resultant exposure of the population to mass starvation and/or civil war; and

— overwhelming natural or environmental catastrophes, where the state concerned is either unwilling or unable to cope, or call for assistance, and significant loss of life is occurring or threatened.”

58 Ibid., §4.25.

59 Ibid., § 4.28–4.31.

60 Ibid., quoted Article 2.A., and § 4.33–4.36.

61 Ibid., quoted Article 2.B., and § 4.37–4.38.

62 Ibid., quoted Article 2.C., and § 4.39–4.40.

63 Ibid., quoted Article 2.D., and § 4.41–4.43.

64 See e.g. L. Legaz y Lacambra, Rechtsphilosophie, Neuwied / Berlin, 1965, p. 770.

65 See e.g. Kaufmann, A., Rechtsphilosophie, 2nd ed., Munich, 1997, p. 301ff.

66 This ex post facto approach could obviously result in some corollary difficulties. Thus, for example, it could become difficult to determine at any given moment if a crime of aggression has been committed, since the constitutive elements of the crime, in particular the unlawfulness of the use of force, could materialize only after some time. Different solutions could be thought of: (1) In the case of a real humanitarian motivation (eventually to be determined by a tribunal) no crime of aggression could be committed because of the absence of a particular element of the mens rea required for being held guilty. A subjective intent at acting for the salvaging of populations would thus eo ipso wipe out the crime. (2) Or: the humanitarian motive does not preclude a condemnation for aggression if it turns out to have been an unlawful use of force, but it can be taken as a ground for mitigation. The determination of the crime would then remain itself floating, as a sort of hereditas iacens, as long as the final regularization or rejection of the acts by the international community has not taken place. This course may obviously pose particular problems with respect to the requirement of criminal law that the prohibited behaviour be sufficiently clear and predictable in advance. Mutatis mutandis, similar reflections would have to be advanced for questions of international responsibility (which may also differ according to specific recognitions of illegality or illegality by third States).

* Robert Kolb, Doctorate in International Law, L.L.M., Professorial assistant, University of Berne, Switzerland. The author is a lecturer at the University Centre for International Humanitarian Law, Geneva.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed