Humanitarian Intervention in International and Islamic Law

In this paper, I look into the moral foundation of humanitarian intervention in international law and its Islamic counterpart. My objective is to identify the traits shared by both sets of laws, and to see if the same or similar justification can be used across cultures to reach the same goal. In other words, one goal is to assess the claims that the basis upon which humanitarian intervention is justified has a universal appeal. Both international and Islamic law justify humanitarian intervention on moral grounds. International law bases its justification upon the human rights discourse. Islamic law provides enough bases for legitimizing humanitarian intervention, and Qur’anic verses, scholarly opinions, and Islamic principles provide a sound background for it. Paramount in this task is the concept of human dignity (karamah al-insan). We found no disagreement on this fundamental issue between the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Islamic law. Human dignity, as understood in international human rights and its Islamic counterpart, thus could form the jus cogens of international law, a common human heritage upon which everybody can agree.


It has become fashionable to advocate or denounce the use of humanitarian intervention by employing different readings of prominent documents in international law. This type of discussion often obscures the main objective toward which humanitarian intervention is geared: protecting the human rights and dignity of those individuals against whom blatant violations of these principles have been committed.

Thus, the main characteristic of reading international law in this way is the absence of any reference to morality. That is to say, if we can turn our heads and forget about the crimes and persecution committed against a certain group of people and use law – any kind of law – to justify our stance, we deny to the law the very foundation of its existence: morality. By reading the preambles to the UN Charter or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), one gets a clear impression of the underlying principles of these internationally accepted documents. I contend that law and morality go hand in hand, and that, in any given time period, law represents a set of rules derived from some universal concept of morality as understood at that particular period. The same applies to international law. As Tesón puts it, “there is no doubt that the principles of international law involved in the debate on humanitarian intervention have a fundamental moral dimension.

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