Can armed humanitarian intervention ever be justified?

Since its beginnings armed humanitarian intervention has represented a dilemma to war, peace and international ethics because it involves the moral issue of when to intervene and if these interventions are justifiable.  Moreover there are the different theories in favour and against of armed intervention. This essay will discuss:  Can armed humanitarian intervention ever be justified?

In order to make this essay clearer is to believe that a couple of definitions should be made beforehand; humanitarian intervention and armed intervention. Firstly, ‘humanitarian intervention is traditionally defined as the use of force by states to protect human rights. This definition presumes that states should do the intervening in order to maintain civil rights and of course the welfare and peace in society’.[1]Nowadays, it is sometimes argued that this traditional definition is obsolete because humanitarian intervention is increasingly a matter of collective action under UN auspices, not action undertaken by states acting on their own authority and under their own law. Secondly, we speak of armed intervention when that exercise involves the use of military force. An armed intervention is humanitarian when its aim is to protect innocent people who are not nationals of the intervening state from violence perpetrated or permitted by the government of the target state.[2] Additionally, armed intervention to stop a massacre is likely to be only the first of many measures needed to restore order to a chaotic society and prevent subsequent massacres. If prevention is important, then is to believe that the challenge for humanitarian policy is to move from responding to humanitarian crises to forestalling them.

Just war theory adds to the discussion of humanitarian intervention a sober general assessment that emphasizes the difficulty of justifying intervention, and a strong sense of the limitations of what intervening states can rightly seek to do to protect human rights of outsiders even when morally and widespread revulsion at oppression call for intervention. Nevertheless, arguments justifying humanitarian intervention usually aims to establish the grounds on which warfare is a permissible response. ‘It is only recently that anyone has raised the issue of whether intervention can be morally required. However, this implies that states have the right to remain neutral in the face of human rights violations in other countries and that their neutrality is not morally objectionable.’[3] It has been argued that armed intervention is ‘humanitarian’ when it is undertaken for the sake of protecting the dignity of the persons, that is, the value of their humanity. ‘Human rights are necessary to express and exercise our humanity; they are fundamental to being a person. When we appeal, to the idea of human dignity, we make a moral case of intervention, that is, one that applies universally and unconditionally’.[4]

At the international level, the non-intervention principle is hence basic to relation between states. It is not as mere custom of the international system. There are moral reasons why a state must be recognized as having rights, in particular the right that outsiders respect its independence and boundaries. But the same principles that validate the non-intervention justify exceptions to the principle.[5] There are, however, moral reasons why states should adhere to international law and therefore why unilateral intervention should be condemned if international law forbids it. ‘It is regrettable that NATO’s decision to intervene in Kosovo had to be made outside the framework of the United Nations and in a manner not explicitly provided for by its own charter, which requires its members to defend one another if attacked, but says nothing about intervention or peacekeeping that is unrelated to collective defense’[6]. To a deeper level, it has been argued that the label ‘humanitarian intervention’ is sometimes applied to transnational charitable efforts to relieve human suffering as well as to forcible interventions to protect human rights. Those who see armed intervention as a kind of just war sometimes protest that using a common label muddies the waters by linking modes of international assistance that raise different issues and should be handled in different ways. On the side of Common morality, it forbids us to use other human beings coercively to achieve our ends. Using force, without good reason, violates the principle of respect. This explains not only why murder and slavery are wrong but also why self-defense is morally justifiable. But ‘common morality does not limit the use of force to self-defense. It also permits us to defend the rights of others when those rights are threatened’.  We are then justified in using force to towards violence against other persons, provided those persons are morally ‘innocent’ that is, not themselves engaged in unjust violence.[7]

For Maimonides[8], the biblical injunction is to ‘save’ another and the implication is that the victim’s life in endangered. In this scenario, if humanitarian intervention means acting to protect humanitarian rights, many such rights besides the right to life might be threatened, including rights against torture, detention, and radical discrimination. But usually only the gravest violations, such as genocides and ethnic cleansing, are held to justify armed intervention. Such act affects the lives of many people and the fate of entire communities. In the classic phrase, they ‘shock the conscience of humankind’. In this case is to suggest that armed humanitarian intervention is justified when it is a response to those acts’ that shock the moral conscience of mankind’.

In Michael Walzer words[9]: ‘the general problem is that intervention, even when it is justified, even when it is necessary to prevent terrible crimes, even when it poses no threat to regional or global stability, is an imperfect duty. Someone ought to intervene, but no specific state in the society of states is morally bound to do so. Consequently, is to believe Walzer’s underlying claim is that the duty to intervene is imperfect, insofar as it is a duty of charity or beneficence, because we cannot be compelled to act on motives of charity. “Charity is a duty of virtue that cannot be coerced.”

Another view; in his essay ‘A few words on Non-intervention’ J.S Mill argues that the subjects of an oppressive ruler must win their own freedom, without outside assistance, and they must suffer the consequences if their struggle is unsuccessful. Not even bloody repression can justify armed intervention by foreign powers, for were such intervention permissible, the idea of’ self-determination’ which Mill thinks is basic to political community, would be meaningless. In few words, if there is any legal basis for humanitarian intervention, it must rest not on principles of international morality but on agreement among states to recognize such principles as law. Additionally, another view suggest: Cynics maintain that there are not humanitarian interventions because states are never motivated by benevolence. For example, India’s intervention in East Pakistan in 1971 was not humanitarian, they argue, because although it ended a massacre, its real aim was to prevent refugees from entering India.

A further point that also arises when discussing humanitarian intervention is self-determination. The basic definition is that ‘a state is self-determining even if its citizens struggle and fail to establish free institutions, but it has been deprived of self-determination if such institutions are established by an intrusive neighbour’. [10] Scholars such as Stuart Mill in On Liberty (1859) argues that ‘we are to treat states as self-determining communities, whether or not their internal political arrangements are free, whether or not the citizens choose their government and openly debate the policies carried out in their name’.

Mill in this aspect recognizes that people who have had the ‘misfortune’ to be ruled by a tyrannical government are peculiarly disadvantaged because they have never had a chance to develop ‘the virtues needful for maintaining freedom’. But he insists nevertheless on the strict doctrine of self-help.  ‘It is during an arduous struggle to become free by their won efforts that these virtues have the best chances to springing up’. [11] Self-determination, then, is the right of a people ‘to become free by their own efforts’ if they can, and non-intervention is the principle guaranteeing that their success will not be impeded or their failure prevented by the intrusions of an alien power. In either case, it is not true that, armed intervention is justified whenever revolution is; for revolutionary activity is an exercise in self-determination, while foreign interference denies to a people those political capacities that only such exercise can bring. Despite Mill’s very general account of self-determination, it isn’t always clear when a community is in fact self-determining, when it qualifies, so to speak, for non-intervention. Is to suggest then, the main worry in this instance is that under the cover of humanitarianism, states will come to coerce and dominate their neighbours.

Now, coming back to the question; yes, armed humanitarian intervention can be justified but, is to suggest that the record of armed interventions has not been very successful. Eric Hobsbawn argues that since the end of Cold war armed intervention has come from foreign states with far superior military power and resources. In none of them has it so far produce stable solutions.

To an extend, intervention has ended bloody wars and produce some kind of peace, but the positive results, as in the Balkans, are disappointing’.[12]  Is to suggest then; the record of armed interventions in the affairs of other countries, even by superpowers, is not one of success. 

To get to the idea of humanitarian intervention, we must shift our attention from wrongs done by one community to another to those done by a government to its own subjects, either directly or by permitting mistreatment. And if the justification of war is to prevent or to punish wrongdoing, it is not hard to make this shift. Therefore, it could be argued that in the absence of a norm of non-intervention, no special justification for humanitarian intervention is needed. Even those who treat ‘the liberation of an oppressed people’ as needing further justification will have an easier time marking their case if the core justification for war is to ‘avenge wrongs’. For example; ‘because the pope was responsible for seeing that all human beings obey God’s laws, he could punish violations by anyone, infidel or Christian. Papal intervention, here, meant that the pope would authorize princes to intervene, just as UN intervention means that states are authorized to use armed force under its mandate’.[13] Another example: ‘If armed intervention is a permissible response to cannibalism and human sacrifice, it must be because these crimes are especially evil. In such cases, outsiders are justified in defending the victims, even if they have not invited such assistance.’[14]  So, it could be argued that humanitarian intervention is usually discussed as an exception to the non-intervention principle. According to this principle, states are forbidden to exercise their authority, and certainly the use of force, within the jurisdiction of other states. In both cases, decisions about whether and how to intervene will always involve a wide range of contingencies, for states have no duty to intervene unless they can do so successfully and at reasonable cost to themselves and to others. Plus, in humanitarian intervention the moral principle is general: ‘you shall not stand carelessly by, whoever you are, if you can provide effective assistance at reasonable cost and without neglecting other duties’. There are practical reasons for suggesting that the international community should authorize armed humanitarian interventions. Such interventions may, for example, be more likely than unilateral actions to benefit from collective wisdom to gain wide support.[15] Although humanitarian activists sometimes call their work of providing economic, medical, or other assistance humanitarian intervention, such assistance is normally provided with the permission of the local authorities and as a result raises questions different from those raised by armed intervention.

So, in reality it appears that armed intervention even when seems to be last resort, has proven to be unsuccessful. The main reason is that a peace and stable solution in these cases does not last long. As an example are the countries of Afghanistan and Iraq. On the other side, in International Relations there is the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) which is a norm or set of principles based on the idea that sovereignty is not a privilege but a responsibility. Under this norm, the authority to employ the last resort and intervene militarily rest with the United Nations, the Security Council and the General Assembly. [16]

Hence, war waged without public authority is not permissible. And not any kind of public authority qualifies. ‘Only the authority of one who has the final say for the welfare of a political community may rightly take it to war; by implicit definition, a public official ‘final say’ when there is no higher authority capable of and authorized to del with the harm to the polity’.[17] Consequently is not to suggest that the condition of right intervention cannot be met by a state undertaking humanitarian intervention. But the difficult questions this condition raises are not easily answered with the necessary confidence.

After the research done in this essay is tempting to conclude that the application of these concepts to the prospect of intervention for the sake of securing human rights surely does not provide a decisive answer to this difficult dilemma, but it does throw distinctive light on several of its aspects. Although the violation of rights that provokes humanitarian intervention grounds a just cause, it is the defense of these rights, not the punishment of those who violate them; that is the just cause. Moreover, defending human rights is a duty of respect because human rights are claims persons have as persons. Human rights are principles that warrant that we are able to represent ourselves as self-originating sources of claims and to act upon the conception of ourselves that we have formed. But it should be noted that promoting human rights and defending basic human rights are different activities and fall under distinct categories of duty. In a few words, in order to maintain human rights armed humanitarian intervention can be justified.


Arguing about war; Michael Walzer. 2002. Chapter: 5

Globalisation, democracy and terrorism; Eric Hobsbawn; Abacus, 2007.

Humanitarian Intervention; Terry Nardin and Melissa Williams; New York University press, 2006.

Just Intervention; Anthony Lang, Jr.; Georgetown University Press, Washington DC, 2003 Chapter 1: The Moral basis of humanitarian intervention.

Just and Unjust Wars (A Moral argument with Historical Illustrations); Michael Walzer; 4th edition; Basic Books, 2006. Chapter 6: Interventions.

– The United Nations Security Council and War (The Evolution of Thought and Practice since 1945); Dominik Zaum, Vaughan Lowe,; Oxford University press. 2008.

Electronic sources

J.S. Mill ‘A few words on non-intervention’ : http//


[1] Anthony Lang jr; Just Intervention. P.21

[2] Terry Nardin;Humanitarian Intervention. P.34

[3] Humanitarian Intervention. P.118

[4] Idem P.120

[5] Just Intervention P.21

[6] Idem P.22

[7] Idem P.19

[8] Maimonides: also called Moses ben-Maimon and also known as Rambam, was the preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher and one of the greatest Torah scholars and physicians of the Middle Ages.

[9] Humanitarian intervention P.122

[10]  Michael Walzer; Just and Unjust Wars.P.87

[11] Just and Unjust Wars P.87

[12] Eric Hobsbawn; Globalisation, democracy and terrorism, P.10

[13] Just Intervention P.13

[14] Idem P.14

[15] Idem P.22

[16]  Dominik Zaum; The United Nations Security Council and War. P68

[17] Humanitarian Intervention P.36

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