As the international response to recent events in Darfur demonstrates, the restriction of authority to intervene to the United Nations poses the greater legal barrier to intervention. From a practical perspective, then, the more pressing question may be whether international law ought to be modified to permit states, or multi-state organizations, to carry out unilateral humanitarian interventions; that is, interventions that are not authorized by the United Nations. The issue here is essentially a moral one: would the incorporation of a right to unilateral humanitarian intervention entail a moral improvement to international law – for example, a decrease in the number and severity of basic human rights violations that occur under it – or would it instead lead to an even greater disparity between legality and morality? Those theorists who have considered the issue have been quick to assert the latter, emphasizing in particular the possibility that states would abuse a unilateral right to humanitarian intervention, so that ultimately a legal system that included such a right would facilitate greater human rights violations than occur under the present international legal system. Though this conclusion may be correct, this essay maintains that the arguments that have been provided to support it are inadequate to that task.

Document Type

Post-print Article

Publication Date


Publisher Statement

Copyright © 2006, University of Illinois Press. The definitive version is available at: http://www.press.uillinois.edu/journals/paq.html

Full Citation: Lefkowitz, David. "On Moral Arguments Against a Legal Right to Unilateral Humanitarian Intervention." Public Affairs Quarterly 20, no. 2 (April 2006): 115-34.