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Copyright (c) 1999 The American Society of International Law
American Journal of International Law

ARTICLE: Editorial Comments: NATO's Kosovo Intervention: Kosovo and the Law of "Humanitarian Intervention"

October, 1999

93 A.J.I.L. 824


Louis Henkin



"Kosovo" has compelled us to revisit the troubled law of "humanitarian intervention." The terrible facts in and relating to Kosovo in 1998-1999 are known and little disputed. The need to halt horrendous crimes against humanity, massive expulsions and war crimes, was widely recognized. NATO intervention by military force was widely welcomed, but it was also sharply criticized. And it inspired much searching of soul by students of international law.

Now that the fait of the NATO bombing is accompli, and has been assimilated into a political resolution blessed by the Security Council, the legal issues of humanitarian intervention can be addressed in comparative tranquility, and the legal lessons pursued with less urgency, and with greater wisdom.

Was military intervention by NATO justified, lawful, under the UN Charter and international law? 1 Does Kosovo suggest the need for reaffirmation, or clarification, or modification, of the law as to humanitarian intervention? What should the law be, and can the law be construed or modified to be what it ought to be?


Before the Second World War, international law prohibited "intervention" by any state within the territory of another without that state's consent: international law prohibited unilateral intervention in internal wars; international law prohibited intervention even for agreed, urgent humanitarian purposes. In 1945 the UN Charter reaffirmed those prohibitions as part of a general prohibition on the use of force.

Article 2(4) of the Charter prohibits "the threat or use of force against ...
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