RIP, The Doctrine of Humanitarian Intervention?

by Julian Ku

It might be premature to declare the death of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention under international law, but there is no doubt that doctrine suffered a massive blow when the British Parliament voted against a preliminary motion in favor of military strikes on Syria.  To be sure, humanitarian intervention was not directly before the Parliament, but the UK government’s international law justification for the Syria strikes without UN Security Council authorization was almost wholly based on a version of the humanitarian intervention doctrine.  And since the UK government’s motion would have only supported strikes after a report from UN inspectors confirming the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, I don’t think doubts about the use of the weapons were the top reason the motion failed.

More likely, the MPs voted against the motion on the theory that even if the Syrian government’s responsibility for the use of chemical weapons was established, the UK should not launch strikes.  To be sure, I doubt many MPs voted no just because they didn’t accept the government’s legal justification, but it obviously didn’t gain a majority support.

Since the UK is one of the few states to openly adhere to the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, and this vote casts doubt on the UK’s future commitment to this doctrine, I would not be optimistic about the future acceptance of this doctrine by other states.  Of course, there is one state out there that might jump on the humanitarian intervention bandwagon, even at this late hour.  But it has not done so yet.

4 Responses

  1. Has it dawned on you that they may have voted against the method rather than the principle, as well as the fact that there was no clear definition of success? That was mentioned by a number of MPs during the debate

  2. I dont think this vote casts doubt on the UK`s commitment to the doctrine. As Robert notes, there were many other reasons why the majority of MPs didnt back the motion.
    If Assad were to seek encouragement from the inaction of the west  this time round and engage in the widespread use of chemical weapons in the future, I would expect the UK Parliament to back military action with or without UNSC approval. In such a case Humanitarian Intervention would inevitably form the basis of the legal argument.
    The leader of the opposition said yesterday that he was not opposed to backing the government`s calls for military action but that a better case had to be made. This means that under different circumstances the Labour Party would have voted in favour of the motion and thus, by extension, have also implicitly accepted the principle of humanitarian intervention.
    This of course has nothing to do with the legality of the doctrine. I just have trouble seeing how yesterday`s vote casts doubt on the UK`s commitment to it.

  3. Response…Is “Humanitarian Intervention” a doctrine or just a concept? It does not seem to me that there is sufficient international support for it be given the status of a doctrine.
    I tend to agree Darren’s pragmatic analysis, commented above. But in such circumstances any action may not rest upon some aspirational concept but, rather, be grounded firmly within the legal provisions of article 51 of the Charter.

  4. Julian: Robert is correct that it cannot rightly be concluded that “the doctrine suffered a massive blow.”  If anything, it is noticeable that the UK PM and AG have endorced the validity of use of force for “humanitarian” intervention, thus adding to the opinio juris about such.  But it does seem that it is still a minority claim or point of view at this time, despite mention in Parliament of the related R2P doctrine.
    A more sophisticated claim might involve use of the concept in connection with a policy-serving and textually correct reading of Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter in the context of a civil war in Syria and substantial outside recognition of the “rebels” as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people — that only three types of force are proscribed, that none pertain under special circumstances re: Syria, etc. — especially if the “rebels” consent to use of force.

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