The 1990’s have sadly come to host an increase in civil wars. The atrocities of these wars and their outrages on human life and dignity have shocked the world. Alleviation of human suffering should be an imperative priority in any civil war, especially to ease the hardships of the civilian population. But in many internal armed conflicts – Biafra, Somalia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to mention a few – the assistance offered by humanitarian organizations has been refused access to the civilian victims, leaving the human disasters inflicted by civil war severely aggravated.
This paper is an attempt to establish a legitimate basis for humanitarian intervention in a world of nominally sovereign states. I do this from two perspectives. First, I examine the legal discussions regarding such intervention, and I argue that a norm of justified intervention can be found in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and human rights covenants, as well as developing practice. Second, I examine the moral legitimacy of such actions. Specifically, I argue that beyond whatever basis may be present in international law for human rights and intervention to protect those rights, one can find a foundation for such rights in the very nature of the state system. Further, I argue that sovereignty cannot be a basis to prevent humanitarian intervention because the responsibilities which accrue to states mean that human rights must be seen as a part of the definition of sovereignty, rather than in opposition to it. In addition, within the concept of sovereignty, there is not only a right for the international community to violate international boundaries on behalf of human rights, but an obligation to do so.