W. Michael ReismanIn the Foreign Policy Association's 18th James G. McDonald Distinguished Lecture, delivered at NYU Law on September 27, W. Michael Reisman, Yale Law School’s Myres S. McDougal Professor of International Law, addressed the complex difficulties of humanitarian intervention.

After an introduction by Herbert and Rose Rubin Professor of International Law José Alvarez, Reisman got straight to the point: “You may ask quite reasonably, ‘What’s wrong with proceeding to a military exercise if the economic sanctions fail to stop the genocide or other massive violation of human rights?’ And the answer to that very reasonable question is, ‘It’s very complicated.’”

When it comes to humanitarian intervention by military means, states have long meddled in one another’s affairs, Reisman said, but since the advent of the United Nations two fundamental international legal policies have determined the lawfulness of such acts. The sovereignty policy favors the autonomy of individual states and their protection from outside interference, while the human rights policy advocates protecting the minimum rights of inhabitants within nations.

The initial draft of the United Nations Charter was tilted in favor of the sovereignty school, Reisman said, with the use of force prohibited unless explicitly authorized by the Security Council. The assumption was that human rights concerns could serve as a handy pretext for ulterior motives in arguments for military intervention. But since that time, Reisman continued, the emergence of an international human rights administration with accompanying codes, coupled with greater media coverage of global events and the rise of NGO activism, has contributed to a shift in thinking.

Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan acknowledged a move toward the human rights policy in the aftermath of the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, but, said Reisman, questions remain about the correct approach to humanitarian intervention, and each of the five voting members of the Security Council still has the power to veto use of force: “The political consequences of any prospective decision are an ever-present consideration in international decision-making. An intervention authorized by the Security Council may have the effect of changing the political alignment of the targeted state within the world power process to the detriment of one of the Council’s permanent members.”

Nevertheless, even unauthorized military interventions with the expressed purpose of humanitarian intervention have sometimes passed muster with the U.N. and the international community. Reisman defined types of situations in which humanitarian intervention might be undertaken, and listed 11 criteria for leaders to consider before intervening unilaterally.

“Humanitarian intervention will continue to be normatively ambiguous in international law,” said Reisman, adding, “When it comes to military intervention of any sort, humility rather than romantic hubris is advised.”

Watch the full video of the lecture (59 min):