Humanitarian intervention, consent, and proportionality

In N. Ann Davis, Richard Keshen & Jeff McMahan (eds.), Ethics and Humanity: Themes From the Philosophy of Jonathan Glover. Oxford University Press (2009)


However much one may wish for nonviolent solutions to the problems of unjust and unrestrained human violence that Glover explores in Humanity, some of those problems at present require violent responses. One cannot read his account of the Clinton administration’s campaign to sabotage efforts to stop the massacre in Rwanda in 1994 – a campaign motivated by fear that American involvement would cost American lives and therefore votes – without concluding that Glover himself believes that military intervention was morally required in that case. Military intervention in another state that is intended to stop one group within that state from brutally persecuting or violating the human rights of members of another group is now known as “humanitarian intervention.” Those against whom the intervention is directed are almost always the government and its supporters, though this is not a necessary feature of humanitarian intervention. It is, however, a conceptual condition of humanitarian intervention that it does not occur at the request or with the consent of the government. The use of force within another state with the consent of the government counts as assistance rather than intervention. The principal reason that humanitarian intervention is contentious is that it seems to violate the target state’s sovereign right to control its own domestic affairs. Because humanitarian intervention is a response to human rights violations within the target state, it is regarded as altogether different from wars of defense against aggression. Indeed, since aggression is normally understood to be war against a state that..

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Jeff McMahan
Oxford University

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