Multilateral agreement is the only justification of “humanitarian” wars

Federico Germani

Federico Germani

Federico is a bioethicist and molecular biologist at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. His research focuses on the influence of misinformation on public health. He explores strategies to enhance public resilience against misinformation, with a strong emphasis on risk and crisis communication, trust-building, information and media literacy. Federico is the founder and director of Culturico.

Within the last 20 years, the United States and its western allies have gone to war to defend the natural human rights of citizens of other states, thereby violating the principle of non-intervention established within the frame of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Is interventionism justified, or does it reflect the interests of the aggressors? Will other international players, such as China or Russia, use similar rhetoric to justify aggressive behaviours? 

The debate about human rights started in the 17th century with Hugo Grotius, who believed in the existence of rights of individuals to life, liberty, and property (1). His view was then adopted by other important thinkers, such as Rousseau and Kant.
Nowadays, the dominant liberal politics of western countries is based on the recognition of individual human rights, a recognition that became valid worldwide after the end of the Cold War and the victory of individual rights over communal rights, an event described by Francis Fukuyama as the ‘end of history‘ (2).
In line with the English school theory (3), the importance of human rights became a new institution of the international society that shapes the behaviour of actors all over the globe, including powerful players in East Asia, such as China. After all, the Asian critic over a western view of human rights (4) is still subjected to international political pressure in order to ensure basic standards of life to every citizen. This is indeed a duty of states, as underlined by the Montevideo Convention on duties and tasks of states.

More recently, human rights have been incrementally introduced among the plethora of reasons to go to war.
Although there are a small number of wars between democratic states (in agreement with the Democratic Peace Theory, a liberal theory proposing that states should adopt democratic forms of government in order to seek peace), liberal states go to war against illiberal states and they often do so by justifying the necessity of intervention due to a lack of human rights recognition in the rival country, stating there that the target of war is not the people but rather the bourgeoisie elite in power.
This goes in line with the internal debate between English school scholars concerning the rights of intervention on the ground of human rights limitations versus the principle of non-intervention (5,6,7), which remains as a pillar of the international society since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. This debate reveals that human rights interventionism is a strong enemy of the institution of sovereignty, since the latter is weakened by external intrusions into internal affairs.

Multilateral agreement is the only justification of "humanitarian" wars
Multilateral agreement is the only justification of “humanitarian” wars.

The practice of interventionism based on human rights has seen the US as the main perpetrator, starting after the 9.11 terror attacks in New York and Washington D.C. Thereafter the terminology “war on terror” was associated – and often confused – with the discourse about human rights’ abuses.
Interestingly the US, and more generally western interventionism, reveal, by contrast, a passive behaviour of two other superpowers, China and Russia, which have not used the instrument of human rights interventionism to follow their interests.
One recent exception carried out by Russia was the annexation of Crimea based on the idea of defending the Russian minority in Ukraine.
It will be interesting to see whether China and Russia will increase their interventionism based on human rights, thereby copying the behaviour of the USA.

It is obvious that in a utopian society, order is guaranteed by a full respect of individual human rights. It seems therefore counterintuitive, but nonetheless true, that order can be undermined by the will of states to impose the respect of human rights on other sovereign states.
It is of utmost importance to find alternative routes to military intervention, which cause great losses and suffering to the same civilians that should be defended, to ensure the existence of human rights in a country.
On the one hand, the subtle line where a war can be defined as ‘just‘ should perhaps be placed at the point where human atrocities are committed. In all the other cases, pressure on states that do not respect natural human rights should be provided by the international community in the form of political and economic pressure, up to the introduction of multilaterally agreed sanctions.
On the other hand, the international society should also put pressure to avoid the rhetoric of interventionism on the ground of human rights as a self-help strategy that pursues domestic interests.
The idea of ‘jus ad bellum‘ should therefore follow the set of rules, norms, and practices that are absorbed within the international society, implying that unilateral interventionism should not take place and that a war in defense of human rights can only be considered just when the great majority of states agrees with it.


Federico Germani



  1. Grotius, H., “De iure belli ac pacis”, 1625.
  2. Fukuyama, F., “The end of history”, 1992.
  3. Cox, M. & Campanaro, R., “Introduction to International Relations”, 2016.
  4. Dallmayr, F., “”Asian values” and global human rights”, Philosophy East and West, 2002.
  5. Nardin, T., “Law, morality and relations of states”, 1983.
  6. Jackson, R., “The global covenant: human conduct in a world of states”, 2000.
  7. Wheeler, N., “Saving Strangers: humanitarian intervention in international society”, 2000.
Received: 28.08.18, Ready: 25.09.18, Editors: HH, RG.

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