When are International Crimes Just Cause for War?

44 Pages Posted: 21 Sep 2014 Last revised: 20 Mar 2015

See all articles by Margaret M. deGuzman

Margaret M. deGuzman

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law

Date Written: September 17, 2014


At the 2005 World Summit, states unanimously acknowledged their responsibilities to protect people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, and declared their readiness to use collective force to that end if necessary. This endorsement of the “responsibility to protect” (RtoP) represents an important step on the road to developing a norm of legitimate humanitarian intervention. However, there is a critical flaw in the way states framed RtoP at the World Summit: they equated the just cause threshold for humanitarian intervention with the commission of international crimes. This was a mistake because just cause for intervention should depend on the gravity of actual or threatened harm, not on whether that harm constitutes a crime, let alone an international crime. This Article argues that there are three deleterious consequences of framing RtoP in this way: (1) it excludes situations of catastrophic, unintentional harm where intervention may be morally justified; (2) it impedes efforts to prevent all levels of harm by requiring a finding that crimes are occurring or threatened before RtoP applies; and (3) it threatens to undermine the international criminal law regime by encouraging people to think of international crimes exclusively as “atrocities” and by obscuring the difference between humanitarian intervention and aggression.

Keywords: international law, international criminal law, responsibility to protect, humanitarian intervention

JEL Classification: K14, K33

Suggested Citation

deGuzman, Margaret M., When are International Crimes Just Cause for War? (September 17, 2014). Virginia Journal of International Law, Vol. 55, 2014, Forthcoming, Temple University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2014-40, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2497720

Margaret M. DeGuzman (Contact Author)

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law ( email )

1719 N. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122
United States

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