In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Humanitarian Intervention

  • Introduction
  • Conceptual Parameters
  • Historical Treatments
  • General Works
  • Critical Approaches
  • Jurisprudence
  • Governmental, Nongovernmental, and Intergovernmental Sources
  • The Turn Towards Regulation

International Law Humanitarian Intervention
Dino Kritsiotis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0021


This article begins with an assessment of the conceptual parameters of “humanitarian intervention” that occur and recur within the literature. It will be apparent that there are various meanings attached to the concept of humanitarian intervention, and that it is critical to understand what particular proposition authors are addressing when they invoke the term. The issue has become especially pronounced in view of the UN Security Council and its powers under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations, by which, historically, humanitarian intervention has been treated as a “right” or entitlement of states to go to war (or, as would be said today, to threaten or use force) independent of any institutional authorization. This explains the itemization of humanitarian intervention under the classic rubric of the jus ad bellum. Once the various conceptual parameters have been canvassed, the historical treatments of humanitarian intervention shall be considered, taking on some of the iconic representations of humanitarian intervention in the literature; this is then followed by general works on the concept, setting it in the much more contemporary context of the Cold War, but also after the Cold War. Critical approaches have developed, too, and these shall be analyzed alongside the rather limited jurisprudence that has emerged on humanitarian intervention from the International Court of Justice. In the penultimate section, the main representations of humanitarian intervention after the Cold War are assessed, before the article concludes with a sense of the turn to regulation—the arguments and efforts that have been made to not only recognize a “right” of humanitarian intervention but to set down predicates for its exercise in practice.

Conceptual Parameters

Within international law, the concept of humanitarian intervention addresses those applications of force by states that are directed toward the protection of the lives of the inhabitants of the state targeted for intervention, because their lives are placed in either imminent or actual peril; see Verwey 1985 and Fonteyne 1973–1974 for this classic invocation of humanitarian intervention. Typically, the concept focuses on the use of force in such circumstances, although there is no reason in principle why threats of force (e.g., with a view to the establishment of no-fly zones) designed to provide the aforementioned protection cannot (and should not) be discussed as part of the very same concept. In fact, the International Court of Justice maintained in its July 1996 advisory opinion titled Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons that “[t]he notions of ‘threat’ and ‘use’ of force under [the United Nations Charter] stand together in the sense that if the use of force itself in a given case is illegal—for whatever reason—the threat to use such force will likewise be illegal” (paragraph 47). Equally, it is conceivable that this concept could bring within its fold the application of force not solely or specifically dedicated towards the physical protection of others, but also that which secures the effective delivery of humanitarian assistance in a country without the consent of the government (Chandrahasan 1993, Roberts 1996, Sandoz 1992). Importantly, humanitarian interventions are directed towards the protection of the inhabitants of the state targeted for intervention, rather than the nationals of the intervening state or states, because these actions—of the order of the rescue mission at Entebbe Airport, Uganda, in 1976, or on behalf of those held hostage in the American embassy in Tehran in 1980—are usually undertaken on the basis of the right of self-defense (Ronzitti 1985, Ruys 2008). In its most specific, technical, and narrow sense, then, humanitarian intervention actually serves as a legal justification for states, entitling them, or so they claim, to have recourse to force in the more general circumstances specified (Kritsiotis 2007, Lowe and Tzanakopoulos 2011). There are those, however, who envisage a much broader field of application for humanitarian intervention, including where force is threatened or used for the purposes of self-determination (see Nafziger 1991), or where it has occurred with the authorization of the Security Council under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations (as the Council did in Resolution 794 [1992], when it approved intervention “to establish as soon as possible a secure environment for humanitarian relief operations” in Somalia).

  • Chandrahasan, Nirmala. “Use of Force to Ensure Humanitarian Relief—A South Asian Precedent Examined.” International and Comparative Law Quarterly 42.3 (1993): 664–672.

    DOI: 10.1093/iclqaj/42.3.664

    Considers the Indian intervention in Sri Lanka in June 1987—which involved the delivery of relief supplies to the Jaffna Peninsula without the consent of the Government of Sri Lanka, but with a military escort of four Mirage fighters—as a “different guise” for humanitarian intervention, raising the prospect of an expanded concept beyond the mere provision of physical protection to threatened civilian populations.

  • Fonteyne, Jean-Pierre L. “The Customary International Law Doctrine of Humanitarian Intervention: Its Current Validity under the U.N. Charter.” California Western International Law Journal 4.4 (1973–1974): 203–270.

    Mapping an elaborate itinerary of definitional criteria for humanitarian intervention that relate to substantive, procedural, and preferential considerations, Fonteyne regards the “institution” of humanitarian intervention in its contemporary form as largely a creation of the late 19th century, and proceeds to provide a useful summary and analyses of state practice both before and after the adoption of the Charter of the United Nations.

  • Kritsiotis, Dino. “Humanitarian Intervention.” In Encyclopedia of Globalization. Vol. 2. Edited by Roland Robertson and Jan Aart Scholte, 583–587. London and New York: Routledge, 2007.

    Argues for distinguishing between humanitarian intervention when used as a general descriptive device and its articulation of the formal legal position (i.e., justification) advanced by states for the application of force; actions authorized by the Security Council are, as both a matter of fact and law, demonstrations of the powers of the Council to provide such authorizations under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations.

  • Lowe, Vaughan, and Antonios Tzanakopoulos. “Humanitarian Intervention.” In Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law. Edited by Rüdiger Wolfrum. Amsterdam: North-Holland, 2003.

    Distinguishes between humanitarian intervention in its broader sense (i.e., motivation for action) and its narrower sense (i.e., “as an autonomous justification for the use of armed force in another state” independent of other justifications), and concludes that “states may be willing to accept humanitarian considerations in mitigation of the occasional violation of the prohibition of the use of force and limit their response accordingly.” Available online by subscription.

  • Nafziger, James A. R. “Self-Determination and Humanitarian Intervention in a Community of Power.” Denver Journal of International Law and Policy 20 (1991): 9–39.

    Article highlights the problems in drawing a bright line between humanitarian intervention and interventions for self-determination, but tends to obscure what practice is regarded as supportive of one proposition as opposed to the other; consider, too, its sequel by the author, “Humanitarian Intervention in a Community of Power—Part II,” Denver Journal of International Law & Policy 22 (1994): 219–233.

  • Roberts, Adam. Humanitarian Action in War: Aid, Protection and Impartiality in a Policy Vacuum. Adelphi Paper 305. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

    Especially useful concept paper that sets humanitarian intervention (pp. 19–31) within the broader context of “humanitarian action” of which it forms a part (e.g., delivery of humanitarian relief and assistance, peacekeeping, safety zones), and explores the relationship between these different propositions, highlighting the fundamental need for security if any successful action is to occur. Published by Oxford for the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

  • Ronzitti, Natalino. Rescuing Nationals Abroad through Military Coercion and Intervention on Grounds of Humanity. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1985.

    Presents an impressively detailed empirical investigation of both the protection of nationals and humanitarian intervention, making the case for the protection of a state’s own nationals “grounded on an autonomous right that has survived the entry into force of the [Charter of the United Nations] rather than on the doctrine of self-defence” (from Ronzitti’s “The Expanding Law of Self-Defence,” Journal of Conflict and Security Law 11.3 [2006]: 354).

  • Ruys, Tom. “The ‘Protection of Nationals’ Doctrine Revisited.” Journal of Conflict & Security Law 13.2 (2008): 233–271.

    DOI: 10.1093/jcsl/krn025

    Provides an excellent overview of various legal positions concerning the protection of nationals (self-defense, state of necessity, as well as an autonomous exception to the Charter prohibition of force) as distinct from humanitarian intervention, and sets this within the context of other aspects of international law (e.g., aggression, human rights, hostage-taking) and recent International Law Commission deliberations on diplomatic protection.

  • Sandoz, Yves. “‘Droit’ or ‘Devoir d’ingérence’ and the Right to Assistance: The Issues Involved.” International Review of the Red Cross 32 (1992): 215–227.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020860400070480

    Recognizes the problems arising from the meaning of the terms droit d’ingérence and devoir d’ingérence, and of their exact translation into English, and of the increasing recognition paid to a “right of assistance” as emanating from the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols; article draws readers into the comparative dynamic of systems regulating force (jus ad bellum) and the conduct of hostilities (jus in bello), as specifically applied to the provision of humanitarian assistance.

  • Verwey, W. D. “Humanitarian Intervention under International Law.” Netherlands International Law Review 32.3 (1985): 357–418.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0165070X00011062

    Defines “humanitarian intervention” as “the protection of fundamental human rights by a state or group of states, particularly the right to life of persons who are nationals of and sojourning in other states, involving the use or threat of force, such protection taking place neither upon authorization by relevant organs of the United Nations nor upon invitation by the legitimate government of the larger state” (p. 372).

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