The Legitimacy of Humanitarian Intervention


Since its establishment, humanitarian intervention has remained an actively debated topic both among political theorists and the general public. To further aggravate the subject, a series of measures has been conducted based on the concept in the twentieth century, most of which were later considered controversial to some extent. As a result, despite the supposed global adoption, the concept still lacks a robust theoretical framework that would define its key elements and principles of implementation.

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However, the most important aspect of controversy in question lies in the concept’s questionable legitimacy. The rationale behind the premise is the liberal assumption that punitive action should be applied to malevolent actors in response to their wrongdoings. This point of view was used on several occasions by international organizations such as the United Nations for the authorization of the use of force in the impacted countries.

On the other hand, a more realistic perspective can be proposed, according to which such authorizations are to be limited to the cases of self-defense. From this viewpoint, the interventions mentioned above can be considered violations of the target country’s territorial integrity. As can be seen, the complexity of the moral and ethical landscape does not allow for uniform acceptance of the concept on a global scale. The following essay utilizes liberal and realist frameworks to argue in favor of the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention.


Evidence of Legitimacy

To arrive at the meaningful conclusion, it would first be reasonable to explore the current discourse on the matter. Specifically, it is necessary to outline the arguments in favor of the practice of humanitarian intervention and compare them to the arguments against it. The arguments supporting human intervention can be broadly defined as appealing to legal concepts and moral values. The former is delivered primarily through the principles of international law laid out in the UN Charter.

According to the articles of the Charter, human rights are among the most significant values and, therefore, their protection is to be prioritized (Baylis, Smith, & Owens, 2014). To a certain degree, this prioritization allows for an exception from the restriction of using the force in an armed conflict, at least in the cases where the state was known to commit crimes against humanity.

Some experts have also pointed out that the said restriction only applies to the scenarios characterized by political independence and territorial integrity, which were difficult to use in the cases where the historical examples of interventions have taken place (Baylis et al., 2014).

Finally, it has been suggested that while the unilateral intervention could not be considered legitimate, it was still possible to affirm through customary international law, which requires the agreement of states on the legitimacy of the action and its subsequent execution (Baylis et al., 2014). Several events from world history are consistent with the suggested definition, thus supposedly creating a precedent to the approach. Admittedly, the described views are not accepted by the majority of experts on the matter and are not substantiated by evidence from the Charter’s authors.

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At this point, it is necessary to distance from legal practices and explore the underlying moral and ethical assumptions. The most intuitive approach is a statement that protection of the civilian population from extreme instances of inhumane treatment, such as genocide, is an absolute priority of rational human beings regardless of whether such actions are permissible from a legal standpoint. The main support for this perspective stems from the definition of sovereignty. According to it, one of the primary responsibilities of a sovereign state is the protection of its citizens. By extension, once a state’s actions contradict the principle, they no longer align with the concept of sovereignty, granting permission for intervention.

To further strengthen the assumption, some theorists point to the concept of common humanity. According to the concept, both human rights and the obligation to ensure the rights of others are shared equally by all individuals. In other words, the actions that are necessary for maintaining common humanity are expected to override legal frameworks of individual states, granting permission for the intervention.

It is possible to take this assumption one step further by introducing the global perspective, which dictates the uniformity and equality of each given part of the world in terms of rights and duties. Finally, the discussed perspective is consistent with the overwhelming majority of the religious and ethical systems developed by different cultures. Specifically, all major religions view violence as unacceptable, and uniformly consider mass killing as a malevolent action. In this light, humanitarian intervention can be viewed as a benevolent and desirable response, which supposedly grants permission for its execution.

Admittedly, the described approach has its weaknesses. The most significant aspect is supplied by the realist framework. According to it, the possibility of abuse is introduced by the justification of the intervention. Simply put, it would be possible for a malevolent actor to initiate a conflict by framing it as a justifiable humanitarian action and cherrypicking the parts from religious and ethical systems that support its viewpoint. Another controversial point is the lack of a reliable definition of a humanitarian crisis. In the most extreme cases, mass killings are sufficient to consider the actions incompatible with humanitarian principles. However, it is possible to imagine a scenario where occasional abuse of human rights will be framed as unacceptable, creating a precedent for war.

Finally, realists point to the fact that at least in some cases, humanitarian intervention has to take place before the occurrence of a crisis. However, in such a scenario, the force needs to be applied before any solid rationale is presented for doing so. In other words, it is unclear whether the intervening party needs to wait before the lives are lost. Understandably, such an approach seems counterproductive from the liberal perspective since it negates the entire premise of a humane component. On the other hand, any aggressive action can be framed as preventive in the absence of evidence for its legitimacy.

Challenges to Legitimacy

After examining the main arguments supporting the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention, it would be reasonable to address the main areas of concern. First, as was briefly mentioned above, the authorities of a given state can utilize the liberal framework as a way of justifying the pursuit of personal interests. The most recent example of such a scenario is the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation.

The procedure supposedly occurred by the wishes of the peninsula’s authorities and was backed by legitimate voting procedures, adding credibility to the events. The authorities on the Russian side unanimously agreed on the need to support the initiative and expressed their readiness to collaborate with and support the local population (McFaul, Sestanovich, & Mearsheimer, 2014).

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Nevertheless, both the Ukrainian side and several international organizations expressed strong their doubts regarding the legitimacy of the process and suggested that safeguarding the interests of the population was a justification for securing a strategically important territory (McFaul et al., 2014). Simply put, the interference of a more powerful state with the affairs of the country with weaker military potential was made possible by framing the enterprise as a humanitarian intervention, with little opposition from the international community.

The most apparent weak point of the described criticism is the fact that in such a case, the violation would be obvious enough to facilitate counteractions. In the example above, the Russian Federation did receive substantial criticism from the international community and became subject to several punitive actions, including several rounds of sanctions and a suspension of the state from the G8 group, among others (McFaul et al., 2014).

However, according to realists, such a straightforward approach is to be expected only in some cases whereas in the majority of instances the illicit actions will be concealed more carefully. In other words, while a humanitarian action will take place in response to real issues, but only when it aligns with the intervening actor’s existing agenda. In this light, the phenomenon becomes the means of satisfying national interests. Interestingly, this perspective does not negate the fundamental humanitarian premise of the intervention – instead, it essentially provides the context of its facilitation.

Another notable criticism discusses the lack of a sound legal basis in international laws. Specifically, the use of force can only be authorized based on individual and collective self-defense (Averre & Davies, 2015). While some interventions can be viewed as consistent with the definition, it becomes increasingly difficult to apply them to the intrusion by an external actor. In other words, the right to intervene is not defined formally.

However, it is important to understand that formal aspects of international legal frameworks are normally preceded by informal concepts and respective actions. In many cases, the normative concepts in the international domain are based on practices and patterns demonstrated by state actors. Admittedly, the process is usually associated with substantial tension before an agreement is reached regarding the universally accepted norms. Nevertheless, it would be unreasonable to dismiss it solely based on a lack of formal agreement.

Next, it has been argued that states are expected to prioritize the protection of their citizens, which makes a confrontation an undesirable outcome. The realist perspective holds that state authorities have no moral right to sacrifice the safety of their citizens to protect others. However, this argument has two weaknesses. First, it presumes the benevolence of the authority as a fundamental premise and does not explain a scenario where the state fails at securing human rights.

As was explained above, this can be viewed as a disruption of the state’s integrity and, in liberals’ view, is sufficient for justifying an intervention. Second, it ignores the uniformity of rights for all human beings, essentially creating a preferential treatment based on the current conditions in the country. Simply put, it allows the malevolent government to treat its citizens in any desirable manner and using the radical realist viewpoint to repel the intervention.

The latter brings up the final point of concern, namely the lack of uniformity in the approach to intervention. Due to the complexity of the political, social, and cultural landscape at the international level, it would be unreasonable to expect a clearly defined conflict with evident aggressors and victims. It is also necessary to account for the factor of national interests, which will play a role at least in some of the instances (Adler-Nissen & Pouliot, 2014).

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As a result, the decision to initiate a humanitarian intervention will differ even within a single entity. However, it is unclear whether such an approach can be considered a definitive drawback. It is equally possible to view it as a reasonable degree of flexibility in decision-making in response to complex circumstances, which is both permissible and desirable as a part of a responsible approach to intervention.


As can be seen from the information above, the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention is supported mainly from the moral perspective, with limited formal support from international legal frameworks. From the liberal perspective, the universal and fundamental premise of human rights creates the strongest case for the use of the intervention supported by the definition of state sovereignty and the concept of common humanity. Admittedly, the realist side does raise several valid points against facilitating an intervention, including the lack of formal normative acts, insufficient uniformity of the approach, and, perhaps most importantly, the possibility of abuse of the action in the national interests.

However, the majority of the criticisms are related to the lack of a robust and well-defined framework for action, which is to be expected given the active development phase of international relations. Thus, it would be reasonable to conclude that humanitarian intervention is legitimate unless specific evidence points to the contrary.


Adler-Nissen, R., & Pouliot, V. (2014). Power in practice: Negotiating the international intervention in Libya. European Journal of International Relations, 20(4), 889-911.

Averre, D., & Davies, L. (2015). Russia, humanitarian intervention and the Responsibility to Protect: The case of Syria. International Affairs, 91(4), 813-834.

Baylis, J., Smith, S., & Owens, P. (2014). The globalization of world politics: An introduction to international relations (5th ed.). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

McFaul, M., Sestanovich, S., & Mearsheimer, J. J. (2014). Faulty powers: Who started the Ukraine crisis? Foreign Affairs, 93(6), 167-178.

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