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Copyright (c) 2001 American Society of International Law 
International Legal Theory

COMMENT: The Legitimacy of Humanitarian Intervention Under International Law

Summer, 2001

7 Int'l Legal Theory 68


Mortimer Sellers, University of Baltimore


Humanitarian intervention has always played an important part in international relations. States intervene to promote justice, to advance their own interests, or both--but usually call on justice first in justifying their actions. Even the most extreme apostle of sovereignty, Jean Bodin, conceded that one sovereign may intervene to punish another who governs without regard to the public welfare, honor, or survival. (Jean Bodin, Six livres de la Republique (1583 edition) Book II, ch. 5, p. 609). Some level of interference by governments or individuals to prevent the human rights abuses of others must be tolerated in any case, whatever one's views, for the same reason that some interference with others must always be legitimate under any legal system: because it cannot be totally avoided. Any action by a state, individual, group of states or group of individuals will have an effect on others, and to that extent interfere with them. The question for lawyers and philosophers cannot be whether intervention is legitimate (because a total prohibition on interference would preclude all action) but rather when intervention is legitimate and when it is not. Law sets limits on how much one person, group of persons, state or group of states may intervene to influence others, and establishes procedures to support official interventions (enforcement), or to prevent improper interventions (delicts or crimes). Some level of interference must be tolerated because all action is intervention, and total inaction would not be practical.

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