HI-01-01 State Sovereignty and the Ethics of Intervention

This is lesson one of six on humanitarian intervention.

Here are links to the other five:

Introducing Humanitarian Intervention:
Lesson 01-01, Lesson 01-02, Lesson 01-03

Intervention: From Theories to Cases:
Lesson 02-01

Changing Norms of Sovereignty and Intervention:

Lesson 03-01, Lesson 03-03


A characteristic feature of the post-Cold War period is the normalized use of military force to protect victims of state brutality and lawless violence abroad. In this lesson we discuss the ethics and politics of responding to such crises, introducing the notion of "humanitarian intervention." We discuss the conditions under which states and other actors can legitimately override the international legal norm of "nonintervention" by trespassing on a sovereign territory.

Are humanitarian interventions exceptions to prevailing world-order notions of sovereign statehood, or are they markers of an emerging, new order focused on safeguarding individuals rather than states? We examine why and to what extent the issue of humanitarian intervention exposes a conflict between order and justice in international relations. We also look at how the notion of humanitarian intervention evolved, both in the writings of major thinkers and with changes in the nature and composition of the international system and international society. How do authors' theories or visions of international politics inform their characterizations and assessments of the idea of humanitarian intervention?

This lesson thus introduces a series of tensions that will help frame the discussion throughout the course: between order and justice in international society; between pluralist and solidarist takes on humanitarian intervention; between the current international legal and normative orders; and between different thinkers commenting on the intervention issue over time. The lesson also touches on some of the important real-world examples of military and humanitarian interventions (and "non-interventions") that will be considered in greater detail later in the course, as well as other examples—such as Bosnia and Cambodia—that students may want to explore in their own time or as part of research projects.


30-minute introductory lecture on the history, ethics, politics, and/or law of state sovereignty and its limits.


A. In-Class Activities
Listen: Lecture exploring the central themes of humanitarian intervention (30 minutes)

Do: Discuss (30 minutes)

B. Assignments to Be Completed in Advance (0-2+ hours)
Simon Chesterman, "Hard Cases Make Bad Law: Law, Ethics, and Politics in Humanitarian Intervention," in Just Intervention, ed. Anthony F. Lang, Jr.

Jarat Chopra and Thomas Weiss, "Sovereignty Is No Longer Sacrosanct: Codifying Humanitarian Intervention," Ethics & International Affairs 6 (1992)

Terry Nardin, "The Moral Basis of Humanitarian Intervention", Ethics & International Affairs 16, no. 1 (2002) and in Just Intervention, ed. Anthony F. Lang, Jr. (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2003). Updated version available in Ethics & International Affairs: A Reader, ed. Joel Rosenthal, 3rd edition (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2009)

Oliver P. Ramsbotham, "Islam, Christianity, and Forcible Humanitarian Intervention," Ethics & International Affairs 12 (1998)

Michael J. Smith, "Humanitarian Intervention: An Overview of the Ethical Issues", Ethics & International Affairs 12 (1998). Updated version available in Ethics & International Affairs: A Reader, ed. Joel Rosenthal, 3rd edition (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2009)


A. What is "humanitarian intervention"? How does it differ from other forms of international intervention and assistance?

B. Is humanitarian intervention permissible? Are there limits to state sovereignty and the international legal principle of nonintervention?

C. Under what conditions is humanitarian intervention permissible? What kinds and degrees of threats to a population justify an international response? What other criteria apply? Are interventions permissible that do not receive authorization from the United Nations Security Council?

D. Who are the relevant agents of a humanitarian intervention? Which agents have the right to intervene? Do any have a duty?

E. To what extent is humanitarian intervention perceived to be a legitimate practice in international society? What is its status in international law? Does this settle the matter? Are foreign military forces a good mechanism for protecting human rights?

F. How have the answers to these questions given by political and legal theorists changed over time? How might they change in the future?


Alex J. Bellamy and Nicholas J. Wheeler, "Chapter 30: Humanitarian Intervention in World Politics," The Globalization of World Politics, ed. John Baylis, Steve Smith, and Patricia Owens (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)

Allen Buchanan, "The Internal Legitimacy of Humanitarian Intervention," Journal of Political Philosophy 7, no. 1 (1999)

Sohail H. Hashmi, "Is There an Islamic Ethic of Humanitarian Intervention?" in Just Intervention, ed. Anthony F. Lang, Jr. (New York/Washington DC: Carnegie Council/Georgetown University Press, 2003)

Stanley Hoffmann, "The Politics and Ethics of Military Intervention," Survival 37 (1995/96)

J. L. Holzgrefe and Robert O. Keohane, eds., Intervention: Ethical, Legal, and Political Dilemmas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), esp. chapters 1, 3, 7, and 8

Stephen D. Krasner, "Compromising Westphalia," International Security 20, no. 3 (1995/96)

Terry Nardin and Melissa Williams, eds., NOMOS XLVII: Humanitarian Intervention (New York: New York University Press, 2005), esp. chapter 3.

Oliver Ramsbotham and Tom Woodhouse, Humanitarian Intervention in Contemporary Conflict (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996)

Michael J. Smith, "Ethics & Intervention," Ethics & International Affairs 3 (1989)

Michael J. Smith, "Humanitarian Intervention Revisited," Harvard International Review 22, no. 3 (2000)

Fernando Tesón, Humanitarian Intervention: An Inquiry into Law and Morality, 3rd ed. (New York: Transnational Publishers, 2005).

Michael Walzer, "Arguing for Humanitarian Intervention," in Nicolaus Mills and Kira Brunner, eds., The New Killing Fields: Massacre and the Politics of Intervention (New York: Basic Books, 2002).

Michael Walzer, "Interventions," in his Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (New York: Basic Books, 2006)

Michael Walzer, "The Politics of Rescue," Dissent (Winter 1995)

Thomas Weiss, "Chapter 1: Conceptual Building Blocks," Humanitarian Intervention (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007)

Jennifer Welsh, ed. Humanitarian Intervention and International Relations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004)

Nicholas J. Wheeler, "Humanitarian intervention and international society," chapter 1 of Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000)
(Also available via Oxford Scholarship Online.)