At the very beginning of the twenty-first century, two concerns ranked high on the military-political agenda of the Western world: humanitarian intervention and terrorism. This is an essay on the ethical issues surrounding the former.


At the very beginning of the twenty-first century, two concerns ranked high on the military-political agenda of the Western world: humanitarian intervention and terrorism. This is an essay on the ethical issues surrounding the former. The events of September 11, 2001, have understandably increased the concern with terrorism and pushed the problems of humanitarian intervention into the background. But the issue is unlikely to remain offstage for long, if only because the shadows cast by humanitarian disasters such as the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 will continue to darken the conscience of the international community--and there is every prospect that further such shadows will be cast in the future.

Moreover, if military interventions in the Middle East against terrorism prove successful, they may bolster the case for the use of military intervention in the cause of humanitarian relief by suggesting that military power can be effective in solving political problems at a distance and in aiding positive social transformation of other societies. But the dialectic here is complex, since any such antiterrorist interventions may be successful (if they are) precisely because their objectives are restricted to the retaliatory or defensive. In any event, as this essay shows, the moral issues raised by the question whether to wage humanitarian war go to the heart of the ethical justifications available for any form of military intervention.

This essay begins with definitional discussions of the key terms of any such debate: "humanitarian," "intervention," and "ethics." "Humanitarian" refers principally to the motives for the intervention, namely, to save foreigners from the ills inflicted upon them by their rulers or by powerful, protected groups in their own country. But since motives are always complex, this motive need only be dominant, not exclusive. "Intervention" is then defined in terms that involve the action being against the consent of the target state. This requirement is controversial, so it is defended against the objections to it. The meaning of "ethics" is then elaborated in terms that distinguish its rationale from that of religion, culture, or law and locate its significance as providing one answer to the question "How should we live?" Viewed in this light, the ethical dimensions of public policy have an obvious claim to be taken seriously. "Realist" objections to doing so in the realm of international relations are then assessed. Although realism fails as a rejection of the relevance of morality to foreign affairs, it provides some salutary warnings about the distortions that moral perspectives can produce. These warnings guide some of the ethical analysis that follows.

The basic framework of just war theory is then introduced and its central motivation analyzed. It is argued that the just war tradition provides the best framework for discussing the moral arguments for and against humanitarian intervention. This framework has two key structural supports, sometimes referred to by Latin tags: the jus ad bellum (abbreviated here to JAB) and the jus in bello (the JIB). The JAB is concerned with the moral justification for waging war, as contrasted with the provisions of the JIB, which address the morality of the methods employed in the war. Within the humanitarian context, the JAB is of primary interest (although the JIB, too, can also be of interest, because immoral ways of waging war or intervention will often cast doubt on its over- all legitimacy).

The conditions of the JAB, especially that of just cause, are these days treated more restrictively than in past so that a just war has tended to be seen primarily as a defensive war. Military interventions in the affairs of other states without the warrant of self- defense or defense of allies were largely ruled out, both morally and legally. The older tradition of allowing certain aggressive wars to be morally licit fell into disrepute during the latter half of the twentieth century, and the reasons for this are explored. The call for humanitarian war harks back to the older tradition and challenges the paradigm of outlawing all aggression of states against other states. This challenge raises issues of the value of sovereignty, since the sovereign right of states to manage their own affairs has been a mainstay of international relations theory and has a direct connection with the prohibition on aggressive war. There are undoubtedly good reasons for being suspicious of any absolute right for states to remain immune to outside criticism, pressure, or sanction by the international community or even by other states. Malevolent action of states against their own populations certainly constitutes one of those reasons.

Nonetheless, the case against violent intervention cannot be dismissed merely by noting that sovereignty is not absolute. Warfare destroys lives, property, infrastructure, and environment in ways--and to an extent--that economic and diplomatic pressures do not. The case against military intervention has to be seen in this light and against the background of just war thinking.

The relevant conditions of the JAB are those of legitimate authority, just cause, prospects for success, last resort, and proportionality. Assuming, for the sake of discussion, that the condition of right intention has been met, the other conditions are scrutinized for their pertinence to the issue of humanitarian intervention. Under these headings, a cautious, even skeptical, note is struck about many of the hopes entertained by advocates of armed humanitarian intervention. In particular, the requirement of legitimate authority creates concerns about the appropriate authorizations for humanitarian intervention and about the role of a dominant superpower; the requirement of last resort raises issues about the need to explore alternatives to violent intervention; the requirement to have reasonable prospects of success challenges short-term thinking about "rescue"; and the demands of proportionality require a sober assessment of the complex costs of intervention.

Suggestions are then made about the circumstances in which intervention might be morally licit. These concern legitimacy in the international order and the role of the United Nations; the need for holistic measures in the management of intervention; the significance of multilateral versus unilateral forms of intervention; the need for a specialist UN intervention force; and the problems posed by demonization. In conclusion, it is emphasized that humanitarian concerns must be located within a context of the striving for a peaceful world.

About the Author

C. A. J. (Tony) Coady is an Australian Research Council senior research fellow. He is deputy director and head of the University of Melbourne division of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics. He was Boyce Gibson Professor of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne from 1990 to 1998. Coady has held visiting fellowships at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and at St. John's College and Churchill College, Cambridge, as well as visiting positions at several American universities, most recently as Laurance Rockefeller Visiting Fellow in Ethics and Public Affairs at Princeton University's Center for Human Values. He was a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., in 1999-2000.

His books include Testimony: A Philosophical Inquiry (Oxford University Press, 1992) and Morality and Political Violence. His coedited collection Terrorism and Justice: Moral Argument in a Threatened World will be published soon by Melbourne University Press.

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