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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Policy Paper 22: The Moral Foundation of International Intervention

  • Author(s): Binder, Leonard
  • et al.

International law, especially as it has been modified by the Charter of the United Nations, is grounded on actual or hypothetical agreements among sovereign states. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, and related agreements, set a standard of human rights to be observed by sovereign states. Neither the charter nor the declaration specify under what circumstances human rights violations may justify intervention and contravention of the rule of sovereignty. Despite the potential conflict between these two standards on international behavior, there is a widespread belief that a broad range of human rights are based on international law, and that international law is based on a foundation of universally recognized principles of morality.

Moralpolitik, or a morally grounded foreign policy, if it is to have any practical significance, must be rooted in the moral consensus of the political community. There is no reason to assume that all communities will adopt universalistic, legalistic, and rights-based ethical systems. But the predominance of rights-based moral discourse has precluded consideration of alternative political moralities without providing for a hierarchical ordering of competing rights-based norms.

In particular, popular moral discourse does not differentiate between humanitarian rights and political rights. Rights are claimed on individual grounds, cultural grounds, collective social grounds, and political grounds. Often these appeals derive from different and incompatible philosophical positions. For example, the goal of preserving the international system of sovereign states presupposes quite different values than the goal of diffusing democracy or preventing genocide. Although the material interests and the cultural perspectives of the victims of injustice may be invoked as of moral significance in imposing obligations on some or all states, the same sort of interests and perspectives of the states so obliged are rarely considered as a legitimate, integral part of their own moralpolitik.

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