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As the weapons inspectors begin their review of Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons, I want to review the legal, philosophical and historical basis of ‘humanitarian intervention’.

Peace in our timeImage result for queen elizabeth 1

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Europe tore itself apart in religious wars. You’ll remember from your GCSE history how England swung back and forth from Catholic to Protestant in at that time as kings and queens tried to impose their beliefs on their subjects; other contemporary monarchs also tried to impose their beliefs on other nations. In 1648, the continental European monarchies settled a series of peace treaties amongst themselves known as the Peace of Westphalia[1].

The Peace recognised the concept that states should have exclusive sovereignty of their lands and subjects and that other states should respect this sovereignty: one state should not attack another state if it did not agree with that other state’s domestic policies.

Events, dear boy

This principle of non-interference in other states’ domestic policies endured in one way or another until the middle of the 20th century. Despite the horrors of the First World War, the League of Nations was founded only to stop nations attacking each other for territorial aggrandisement. It was not concerned with what nations did within their own legitimate borders. But the Second World War, particularly the Holocaust, provoked a more fundamental challenge to the Westphalian principles, a challenge which continued throughout the next half century.

Like the League of Nations, the United Nations was founded as a means for the international community to stop injustice happening. Unlike the League, the UN did engage in various armed responses to conflicts, with the Korean War being its first foray into international ‘peacekeeping’. But arguably such intervention was directed by larger geopolitical currents, such as whether pro-US or pro-USSR countries were sitting on the UN Security Council.

Likewise, the US intervened variously through the second half of the twentieth century, but again its actions were inconsistent and often driven by larger geopolitical concerns: its incursions into Vietnam and Cuba were motivated by a fear of communism; its reluctance to intervene in Iran was because of its previous failures in Cuba and Vietnam.

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Throughout this period, a gradual shift in public opinion was taking place. In 1938, Neville Chamberlain expressed his reluctance to go to war with Germany over Czechoslovakia saying, “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.” Suffering which was out of sight was very much out of mind. But from the Holocaust onwards, the public was exposed to images of the suffering of civilians. When atrocities happened, as in Auschwitz, the Biafran conflict, the Ethiopian famine, the Rwanda genocide or, more recently, Libya or Syria, the suffering of civilians was beamed directly into people’s houses or displayed in their newspapers.


This was one of the main changes which prompted the emergence of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Western foreign policy, best articulated by Tony Blair in his 1999 ‘Chicago Doctrine’ speech[2]. Much has been said about the ‘illegality’ of the Second Gulf War, but the legality of humanitarian intervention is difficult to pin down because it was then (and still is) such a new and revolutionary concept. Many of the humanitarian interventions which are now praised (e.g. in the Balkans, Liberia or the First Gulf War) were unauthorised by the UN. Indeed, it was only in 2005 that the UN established the framework of ‘responsibility to protect’ which frames sovereignty not as an absolute right of a state (as it was in Westphalia) but a responsibility which the international community should police. See paragraph 138 of the UN’s document which articulates this for the first time[3]. Indeed, many in the West see the duty to intervene for humanitarian reasons as an international moral obligation, not an action legally authorised by the UN (see the UK Attorney General’s advice on intervening in Syria to this effect[4]).

It seems that international diplomacy has come full circle since Westphalia. Of course, the reluctance of the US and the UK to intervene in Syria directly shows that international law, is as much about practicalities as principles. Have a look at Adam Curtis’s blog entry for a further (terrific) analysis of this topic[5] and a prescient, although still somewhat dated, analysis from J S Mill[6] too.

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