Symposium: Koh, Trump, Obama – and Jean Baudrillard (Part 2)

by Kevin Jon Heller

[Kevin Jon Heller is a Professor of Law at the University of Amsterdam. This is the second part of a two-part post. The first part can be found here.]

Humanitarian Intervention

The first part of this post outlined my retrospective problem with Harold’s article. My prospective problem concerns his passionate call for the legal recognition of unilateral humanitarian intervention (UHI) – intervention that is not authorised by the Security Council. Harold’s desire to legalise UHI is understandable, given the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Syria. (The past couple of days being a horrific reminder.) And I share his anger toward Russia, which has repeatedly used its permanent veto to prevent the international community from taking stronger action against Assad. (Though I think the US and NATO are at least partially to blame for Russia’s intransigence, given how NATO abused the authority Russia was willing to give it in Libya.) But even if we believe that UHI should be legal – which I don’t – I think Harold is wrong to insist that it is legal.

Here is what he says about the categorical prohibition of the use of force in Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter (p. 461):

This “never-never rule” exhibits the absolutist, formalist, textualist, originalist quality Americans usually associate with the late Justice Antonin Scalia. It relies on absolutist readings of text, as those texts were “originally understood,” claiming that a nation may not engage in unilateral humanitarian intervention because of prohibitive wordings of Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter and Article I of the U.S. Constitution. But on inspection, this position cannot be sustained. In both cases, this simplistic, absolutist reading cannot be squared with state practice, inter-branch practice, or the broader object and purpose of the document the reader claims to be interpreting.

To be clear, the “simplistic, absolutist reading” Harold condemns is not only consistent with the text of Art. 2(4), it is precisely the reading intended by the drafters of the UN Charter — powerful and weak states alike. Lowe and Tzanakopoulos explain:

13 The travaux préparatoires of the UN Charter, however, establish clearly that the expressions ‘territorial integrity’, ‘political independence’, and ‘in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations’ were not meant as qualifications of the scope of the prohibition in Art. 2 (4) UN Charter, but rather as reinforcements of the prohibition, aimed at assuring smaller and less powerful States that the use of force, for whatever reason, was absolutely prohibited. This was confirmed by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Corfu Channel Case, where a British argument that its actions in forcibly sweeping Albanian waters for mines did not violate the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Albania was rejected, the UK intervention being declared to be a ‘manifestation of a policy of force’ (at 35). In the Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua Case (Nicaragua v United States of America), the ICJ reaffirmed the absolute prohibition of forcible intervention, and stated that ‘the use of force could not be the appropriate method to monitor or ensure … respect’ for human rights (at para. 268)….

With respect to Harold, dismissing the remarkable clarity of the text and history of Art. 2(4) by invoking a right-wing ideologue like Justice Scalia is unfair, conjuring as it does the image of a bunch of white men articulating rules that have to be blindly followed by future generations regardless of societal and demographic change. The Charter might have been drafted by a limited number of states, but the categorical nature of the prohibition of the use of force has been affirmed by every state that has ratified the UN Charter – i.e., all of them – including the dozens of states that did not yet exist when the Charter was drafted. In that respect, there is simply no parallel between the US Constitution and the UN Charter. Far from being quaint or outdated, the Charter’s regulation of self-help reflects state will no less today than it did in 1949.

Harold’s reference to the “object and purpose” of the UN Charter also fails to justify UHI. Although promoting human rights is one of the goals mentioned in the Preamble, it is not the only goal. Others include “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind”; “to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security”; and “to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest.” It is impossible, therefore, to separate promoting human rights from the prohibition of the use of force; on the contrary, the UN Charter is founded on the idea that respect for the latter is a condition of possibility for the former. Lowe & Tzanakopoulos again:

14 Most importantly, the narrow interpretation of Art. 2 (4) UN Charter is inimical to the purpose and structure of an organization intended to maintain international peace and security through the establishment of a collective security system. Oscar Schachter famously wrote that the narrow interpretation of Art. 2 (4) UN Charter requires an ‘Orwellian construction’ (at 649) of the provision’s terms. The better view is that any use of force, irrespective of its—humanitarian or otherwise laudable—motivation, is caught by the prohibition of Art. 2 (4) UN Charter and must be justified on the basis of an accepted exception.

To be sure, I agree with Harold that state practice could legalise UHI, either as a new interpretation of Art. 2(4) through subsequent practice (Art. 31(3)(b) of the VCLT) or as a supervening rule of customary international law. But there is simply no evidence that any significant number of states want to legalise UHI. Here is Harold’s argument to the contrary (pp. 459, 462):

The United Kingdom, Denmark, and Belgium have all articulated the conditions under which they believe humanitarian intervention to be lawful.

To overcome the manifest rigidity of the never-never rule, state practice has offered many prominent counterexamples of de facto humanitarian intervention: India- Bangladesh; Tanzania-Uganda; Vietnam-Cambodia (Khmer Rouge); the U.S. and the U.K. creating no-fly zones over Iraq to protect the Kurds and the Shias; and of course, NATO’s famous Kosovo episode of the late 20th century.

None of the examples Harold mentions supports the legality of UHI — where opinio juris is required, not simply the ability to describe a use of force as “de facto humanitarian intervention.” In each and every case, the invading state invoked a traditional justification for its use of force instead of UHI:

[1] India justified its invasion of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) on the ground that the millions of refugees created by Pakistan’s repression of the Bengalis qualified as an armed attack for purposes of self-defence – a view overwhelmingly rejected by the General Assembly.

[2] Tanzania claimed that it was responding to an armed attack by Uganda. In fact, as Lowe and Tzanakopoulos note (para. 15), Tanzania did not even mention Uganda’s terrible human rights record in its public statements.

[3] Vietnam justified its invasion of Cambodia as self-defence against armed attack.

[4] The Coalition initially provided no justification whatsoever for creating no-fly zones over Iraq. The UK eventually invoked UHI, but no other member of the Coalition did likewise. Indeed, the US later argued – unpersuasively, to be sure – that the no-fly zones were permissible acts of self-defence.

[5] Only the three states Harold mentions – the UK, Belgium, and Denmark – invoked UHI to justify NATO’s bombing of the Serbs. No other NATO state did, and Belgium argued that the bombing campaign should not be seen as a precedent for the legality of UHI in other situations. (A claim Germany made, as well, even though it did not invoke UHI.) By contrast, as Lowe and Tzanakopoulos note (para. 33), “[t]he Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), numbering well over half of the Member States of the UN, unequivocally condemned the use of force against the (then) FRY, as did many other States, some of which are nuclear powers.”

The UHI ledger, in short, can hardly be said to support the legality of UHI. Only three states have ever invoked UHI as a matter of law – and one of those three refuses to endorse it as a general rule. Three states do not a new interpretation or supervening custom make – especially when more than 130 states, the entire Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), have specifically and repeatedly condemned UHI as unlawful.

It is not an accident, of course, that NAM states have led the opposition to UHI. Their opposition may be overinclusive, in the sense that it is at least possible to imagine powerful states in the Global North using force against weaker states in the Global South for genuinely humanitarian purposes. But if the Global South is (too) skeptical of UHI, the US and other powerful states have only themselves to blame, given their long and ignoble history of using force illegally – and dressing up those illegal uses of force in the language of humanitarian concern. (See, e.g., the invasion of Iraq.) Just consider the US’s personal list of military and CIA interventions since WW II, courtesy of William Blum: Iran (1953); Guatemala (1954); Thailand (1957); Laos (1958-60); the Congo (1960); Turkey (1960, 1971 & 1980); Ecuador (1961 & 1963); South Vietnam (1963); Brazil (1964); the Dominican Republic (1963); Argentina (1963); Honduras (1963 & 2009); Iraq (1963 & 2003); Bolivia (1964, 1971 & 1980); Indonesia (1965); Ghana (1966); Greece (1967); Panama (1968 & 1989); Cambodia (1970); Chile (1973); Bangladesh (1975); Pakistan (1977); Grenada (1983); Mauritania (1984); Guinea (1984); Burkina Faso (1987); Paraguay (1989); Haiti (1991 & 2004); Russia (1993); Uganda (1996); and Libya (2011). And we wonder why the Global South doesn’t trust the US (or the UK, or France, or…) to get UHI right?

Does this mean that, to paraphrase Cicero, silent enim leges inter tyrannide? Not necessarily. As Harold’s discussion of the P5 (p. 461) itself indicates, the obstacle to addressing the situation in Syria is not Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter, but the existence of the permanent veto. So instead of embracing UHI, it would be far better to argue — as John Heieck has — that the P5 has a legal duty not to veto a Security Council resolution aimed at preventing jus cogens violations such as genocide and crimes against humanity.

To be sure, good positivist that I am, I am not completely convinced that international law imposes a “no veto” duty on the P5. (I’ll wait for John’s forthcoming book to convince me otherwise.) The stronger legal “solution,” therefore, is probably the one Lowe and Tzanakopoulos discuss — relying on the 1950 Uniting For Peace Resolution to argue that the General Assembly can authorise humanitarian intervention when, as in Syria, the P5 is hopelessly divided:

36 The lack of Security Council authorization cannot be the final word on the issue of legality of an intervention on humanitarian grounds, even if no right of unilateral humanitarian intervention has emerged by way of customary international law. As Certain Expenses of the United Nations (Advisory Opinion) and the Israeli Wall Advisory Opinion (Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory) have confirmed, the Council has primary but not exclusive responsibility for the maintenance or restoration of international peace and security, which may be threatened by humanitarian catastrophes. The UN General Assembly has devised a procedure through which to respond to threats to the peace when the Security Council cannot act because of the use of the veto. This is the procedure established under the Uniting for Peace Resolution (1950). In the event that the Security Council cannot act, States arguing in favour of humanitarian intervention may take the issue to the General Assembly, as in fact they should before even considering unilateral action. Many States have expressed their preference for some form of UN response to a humanitarian crisis as opposed to allowing unilateral action.

37 The position of NATO that it needs to ‘stand ready to act should the UN Security Council be prevented from discharging its purpose of maintaining international peace and security’ (North Atlantic Assembly Resolution 283 para. 15 (d)) is, accordingly, questionable without further qualification. One major reservation relates to whether and when the Security Council is indeed ‘prevented from discharging’ its duties: a decision of the Security Council not to act cannot, without more, be qualified as the Council being ‘unable’ to act; nor can the fact that a resolution in support of action fails to command the necessary majority in a vote within the Council. Even to establish the premise, further evidence is needed that the Security Council cannot act because of the recalcitrant stance of a permanent member, and not merely because there is no agreement as to the use of force in a particular instance. Indeed, the non-authorization of the use of force may be a clear instance of the Council actually discharging its primary responsibility, rather than of it being prevented from doing so. And even if it is considered that the Council is being prevented from acting, UN law allows for an institutional solution: recourse may be had to the General Assembly in an attempt to garner support by two-thirds of its members under the Uniting for Peace procedure. Indeed the language of the NATO resolution itself comes close to that of the Uniting for Peace resolution.

If 2/3 of the General Assembly wants to authorise force to promote human rights — a threshold that would require a number of states in the Global South to support intervention — what possible basis is there, other than a “simplistic, absolutist” reading of the UN Charter and naked power politics, for the P5 to prevent the UN from acting?

To be clear, this is a legal argument, not a practical one. Although as a lawyer I would feel better about humanitarian intervention in Syria if it was authorised by the General Assembly, I am skeptical that such intervention would actually work. (Hence the scare quotes around “solution” above.) There is evident reason to question the value of external military force in Syria, for reasons explored here and here and here and here and here and here. Those analyses focus on UHI, not humanitarian intervention authorised by the General Assembly. But similar considerations apply as long as Russia remains devoted to Assad’s murderous regime.

Indeed, Harold himself clearly recognizes that no durable solution is possible in Syria without Russia’s support (p. 460):

To solve Syria, the United States must join other nations— including Russia—in building a sustainable peace process, organized around lawful conduct and a durable legal arrangement, and leverage that lawful core into a broader policy solution that contains and manages the sprawling crisis.

I completely agree — which is why I find Harold’s full-throated defense of UHI so puzzling. If Russia ever gets on board with a “sustainable peace process,” the Security Council could authorize humanitarian intervention in Syria, making UHI unnecessary. And if Russia continues to obstruct peace in Syria, as it has to date, engaging in UHI (or any kind of HI) would be exceptionally likely to end badly – if not in WW III. Either way, there would be no pragmatic rationale for UHI.


I share Harold’s anger toward the lawlessness of the Trump administration, and his analysis of all the ways in which Trump has further destabilized an already chaotic world is essential reading for anyone interested in American politics, international law, and the intersection between the two. But we cannot allow the horrors of the Trump administration to blind us to the many failings of its predecessor. Like all presidents, Obama was only selectively committed to the values he espoused; democracy and human rights mattered to him in a way they will never matter to Trump, but those values all too often took a backseat to more quotidian US interests such as “national security” and access to markets and resources. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

As for Syria, UHI it is not the answer, no matter how understandable our desire may be to do something — anything — to alleviate the human suffering there. I don’t know precisely what the solution is; if I did, I would be a politician or a diplomat, not a pointy-headed law professor. But UHI is illegal, as it should be. And it would almost certainly only make the situation in Syria worse. Military force for ostensibly humanitarian purposes is exceptionally likely to fail even when blessed by the Security Council, as Libya tragically demonstrates. Such force without international support, and against the wishes of Russia, is a recipe for disaster.

5 Responses

  1. “[1] India justified its invasion of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) on the ground that the millions of refugees created by Pakistan’s repression of the Bengalis qualified as an armed attack for purposes of self-defence – a view overwhelmingly rejected by the General Assembly.” – Need to clarify that it was Pakistan who carried out preemptive air strikes on 11 Indian air bases that led to hostilities.
    Official History of the 1971 War Chapter 8

  2. “To be sure, I agree with Harold that state practice could legalise UHI, either as a new interpretation of Art. 2(4) through subsequent practice (Art. 31(3)(b) of the VCLT)…”

    I am not sure if it is possible to rely on subsequent practice for the purpose of generating an interpretation which clearly goes against the treaty provision (Art. 2(4)), especially after the removal of the part concerning the modification of treaties by subsequent practice from the last draft of the VCLT by the ILC due to lack of agreement on the subject in addition to the absence of a CIL basis in this respect.

  3. Islam,

    You may well be right. I’m not an expert on the VCLT. I was just following L&T’s argument.

  4. Just to add one qualification: Uniting for Peace only mentions a GA recommendation of the use of armed force in case of breaches of the peace and acts of aggression. Those terms are concerned with international peace, as a contextual reading of Article 39 itself and the Charter as a whole shows. On its own terms then, as human rights violations amount at most to a threat to the peace, Uniting for Peace cannot provide the legal basis for UHI (and this is leaving aside the question whether a non-binding recommendation can provide a legal justification for violating binding rules of international law). Of course, when push comes to shove, the GA might just reinterpret the Charter and its own resolution. That would raise the question, again, whether such a reinterpretation would be praeter legem or rather contra legem.

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