In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Military Intervention in International Law

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks

International Law Military Intervention in International Law
Nicholas Tsagourias
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 November 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0016


Intervention refers to interference in the affairs of a state. Such interference can take many different forms: political or military, direct or indirect. International law is mainly concerned with dictatorial or coercive interference in a state’s affairs, which is in principle prohibited. The scope of the prohibition is, however, affected by the political, legal, or normative changes taking place in the international society at different stages of its development. For this reason, the legality of certain interventions (such as interventions for the protection of human rights, democracy, or self-determination) has given rise to interesting debates. The legal literature on intervention reflects these developments, but it should be noted that intervention is not exclusively a legal concept. Intervention is also a political concept, and international relations scholarship has a long history of dealing with this phenomenon. This article focuses on military intervention only and approaches it in general, as well as in specific, terms. After a general overview, textbooks as well as the sources of law relating to intervention will be presented. Because intervention can take place in a number of different forms, they are covered as follows: By the United Nations in the Domestic Jurisdiction of States, By Invitation, In Civil Wars, Humanitarian Intervention, Pro-Democratic Intervention, and Self-Determination. Because intervention is a multifaceted concept, the resources included here approach the topic from a broad spectrum base, recognizing the various influences involved in the decision on whether to intervene.

General Overviews

Intervention can take many forms and has legal, political, and moral dimensions. This is reflected in the range of issues covered by the literature on intervention. Recchia and Welsh 2013 presents European philosophers’ and jurists’ thinking about intervention, whereas Reus-Smit 2013 examines the concept of intervention in political theory. Bull 1984 is a collection of essays dealing with different forms of intervention and with the legal and political aspects of intervention, reflecting the views of the various contributors and the state of political and legal argument on intervention in the late 1970s. The relationship between intervention and state sovereignty, which is central to the debate on permissible or impermissible intervention, is discussed in Lyons and Mastanduno 1995, whereas Forbes and Hoffman 1993 explores the ethical aspects of intervention and nonintervention. The moral aspects of intervention are also discussed in Rawls 2000 and Walzer 2006, whose authors apply their own theories to the issue of intervention.

  • Bull, Hedley, ed. Intervention in World Politics. Oxford: Clarendon, 1984.

    The book examines some important aspects of intervention such as humanitarian intervention, collective intervention, intervention and national liberation, superpower intervention, and intervention and international law. It also assesses the place of intervention in world politics, the legal gaps that exist, and how law should be reformulated in view of changing circumstances.

  • Forbes, Ian, and Mark Hoffman, eds. Political Theory, International Relations, and the Ethics of Intervention. New York: St. Martin’s, 1993.

    This edited book of essays analyzes the discourse on intervention and examines the ethics of (non)intervention in international relations.

  • Lyons, Gene M., and Michael Mastanduno, eds. Beyond Westphalia? State Sovereignty and International Intervention. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

    This collection of essays examines the different contours of the concept of sovereignty and intervention and how they have been impacted by concerns about human rights violations, environmental issues, and the existence of weapons of mass destruction, among others.

  • Rawls, John. The Law of Peoples: With “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited.” 3d ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

    First published in 1999. Rawls applies his theory of justice to international relations. He claims that the principle of nonintervention holds true among just (republican) states, although intervention is permitted by just states against tyrannical states but not against hierarchical states—that is, nonaggressive states that overall respect basic human rights.

  • Recchia, Stefano, and Jennifer M. Welsh. Just and Unjust Military Intervention: European Thinkers from Victoria to Mill. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781107323681

    This collection of essays presents the contribution of classical European philosophers such as Grotius, Vattel, Vitoria, Pufendorf, Hobbes, Kant, Mill, Rousseau, Hegel, and Burke to questions concerning humanitarian intervention, preventive self-defense or trusteeship and assesses their contemporary relevance.

  • Reus-Smit, Christian. “The Concept of Intervention.” Review of International Studies 39.5 (2013): 1057–1076.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0260210513000296

    This article deals with the concept of intervention not in the traditional sovereignist paradigm but in a context of multiple authorities that make up the international order. Intervention is thus the transgression of the jurisdictional boundaries of such authorities.

  • Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. 4th ed. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

    First published in 1977. Walzer deals with moral questions concerning the use of force, opposing any notion of external intervention because that would break the “fit” between the community and its government within the state. However, in extreme circumstances of mass enslavement, genocide, and large-scale massacre, external humanitarian intervention is allowed.

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