University of Minnesota

David Weissbrodt, Joan Fitzpatrick, and Frank Newman
, International Human Rights—Law, Policy, and Process (3d ed. 2001).

Supplement to Chapter 7: Humanitarian Intervention (November 2003)


 Section E.  The US Invasion of Iraq and the Argument for Unilateral  Humanitarian Intervention


The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 has raised questions about the legality of unilateral intervention in other states and the circumstances under which multilateral intervention can take place.  The Bush administration principally explained its need to invade Iraq in terms of the risk that the Iraqi government would attack the U.S. with weapons of mass destruction.  In September 2002 the U.S. government released a national security policy document in which the administration asserted the right to pre-emptive self-defense.[1]  The decision to invade Iraq was apparently the first exercise of that new doctrine, but the U.S. also asserted that the military action was justified on humanitarian grounds.[2]  The Bush administration further asserted that the U.S. policy towards Iraq was to foster “regime change.”  Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter states that “[a]ll Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”  Any resort to military action is reserved to the United Nations Security Council acting under the authority of Chapter VII of the Charter.  Article 39 gives the Security Council the right to determine the existence of “any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression,” the only exception is Article 51, which allows a member state and its allies to respond in self-defense in the event of an armed attack.  The Coursebook discusses requisites for the pursuit of unilateral humanitarian intervention as a possible situation, in addition to Articles 39 and 51, in which military force may be used.[3]  If there is an international legal basis for unilateral humanitarian intervention consider whether the situation in Iraq, as discussed below, qualifies under the requisites discussed in the Coursebook at 346-48.


The U.S. was a supporter of the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war and even extended that support into the period prior to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990[4] that precipitated the Gulf War of 1991 in which the U.S. and allied forces expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait.  Following the end of hostilities, a 1991 uprising by Shi’ite religious and political groups in the South was brutally repressed by Saddam Hussein without intervention by the U.S. and its allied forces.[5]  After the 1991 conflict a Kurd-controlled Iraqi Kurdistan, supported by the U.S. and its allies, was established in the North.  U.S. policy following the end of the Gulf War was to contain and disarm Saddam Hussein’s government through U.N. arms inspections (UNSCOM) and militarily enforced no-fly zones in the Northern sector and a Southern part of Iraq. 


The Bush administration focused on Iraq as a serious danger after the attacks of September 11, 2001, by al-Qaeda.   Despite several attempts and some circumstantial evidence, the Bush administration was unable to establish a clear link between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi government.  The Bush administration therefore focused on Iraq’s failure to comply with U.N. resolutions requiring it to disarm; its lack of cooperation with U.N. arms inspections; and refusal to account for all of its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.  The Bush administration insisted that such weapons did exist in Iraq, that they were in a condition to be used or passed on to terrorist groups, and that the UNMOVIC inspection process was incapable of discovering the weapons because the Iraqi government was too adept at concealment.  In September 2002 President Bush took his case to the U.N. General Assembly where he demanded that Saddam Hussein should cooperate with U.N. Security Council resolutions and disarm or face military action.  He stated that the U.S. would work with the Security Council to adopt the necessary resolutions to enforce these demands.[6]  In response to the U.S. proposal, the Security Council unanimously passed resolution 1441, requiring Iraq to comply with U.N. resolutions, establishing an enhanced inspections regime to monitor its compliance, and referring to Security Council resolutions of 1991 that authorized the use of force against Iraq.[7]  The U.S. stated that the resolution did not restrict its right (1) to determine whether Iraq had complied with the resolution and previous resolutions of the Security Council or (2) to take unilateral military action in the event of non-compliance.[8]   The new UNMOVIC inspections team began operations with incomplete cooperation from the Iraqi Government.  The periodic reports by the inspection team showed no evidence of weapons of mass destruction, although the Iraqi government was unable to account for weapons it had declared prior to Iraq’s expulsion of the UNSCOM inspections team in 1998.[9]  On February 5, 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made a presentation to the Security Council arguing that Iraq was not in compliance with resolution 1441, that sufficient evidence existed to establish that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and that military action was necessary to resolve the threat that Saddam Hussein posed.[10]  The U.S. began to negotiate for a new resolution authorizing the use of force although the Bush administration maintained that it could pursue military action without it.   In March 2003 after it had become clear that there were insufficient votes on the Security Council to approve the text of a new resolution, the U.S. and Britain withdrew their proposal and made preparations to invade Iraq without Security Council approval.  On March 17, 2003, President Bush declared that Saddam Hussein should leave Iraq and allow peaceful disarmament or face invasion within 48 hours.[11]  When the deadline expired, the U.S. began military operations against Iraq.


During the invasion, the Hussein government did not use any chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons against the U.S.-led forces.   There were several false alarms from units accompanied by reporters stating that possible caches of chemical or biological weapons had been found.  As of the writing of this supplement, the only evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq are what appear to be two mobile laboratories, neither of which have shown any evidence of being used for the production of biological weapons, although they could be used for that function.[12]  Following the end of primary hostilities and the beginning of the occupation, and as the search for weapons of mass destruction had yet to produce any results, the Bush administration emphasized the humanitarian argument that Saddam Hussein’s government was of such a brutal and repressive nature that it deserved to be subject to humanitarian intervention or “regime change.”  The administration focused on the horrific nature of the Hussein government and the benefits that the intervention brought to the Iraqi people.[13] 


It is clear that between the Gulf War and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Hussein government committed gross violations of international human rights law.  The key to any intervention on humanitarian grounds is whether the human rights violations were of a sufficient magnitude and such a grave humanitarian threat that they necessitated military action to prevent them.[14]  Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech in February 2003 to the U.N.[15] outlining the case against Iraq mentioned, as an afterthought, the human rights record of Saddam Hussein and focused on:


-         the 1988 Halabja massacre, when the Hussein government used mustard gas against a village population on the border with Iran;

-         the genocidal campaign against the Kurds from 1987 to 1989.


The Powell presentation did not mention any impending human rights violations or any argument that the magnitude of the violations was so great as to necessitate intervention.  The Human Rights Watch report on Iraq during 2002 states that Iraq continued “to commit widespread and gross human rights violations,” including extra-judicial killings, forced migrations, and lack of fair trial rights.[16]  The report does not present any argument that Iraq’s human rights record was significantly worse in 2001-02 than in the year before.


            The intervention by the United States and United Kingdom also raised the issue of proportionality:  even if an intervention may be justified on humanitarian grounds, should military action be a first or a last resort? 


For further reading on the Invasion of Iraq and humanitarian intervention, see:


Hurst Hannum, Bellum Americanum, 27 FLETCHER F. WORLD AFF. 1 (2003);


Patrick McLain, Settling The Score With Saddam:  Resolution 1441 And Parallel Justifications For The Use Of Force Against Iraq, 13 DUKE J. COMP. & INT’L. L. 233 (2003);


Christopher Clarke Posteraro, Intervention In Iraq: Towards A Doctrine Of Anticipatory Counter-Terrorism, Counter-Proliferation Intervention, 15 FLA. J. INT’L L. 151 (2002);


George K. Walker, Principles For Collective Humanitarian Intervention To Succor Other Countries' Imperiled Indigenous Nationals, 18 AM. U. INT’L. L. REV. 35 (2002);


Daphne Richemond, Normativity in International Law:  The Case of Unilateral Humanitarian Intervention, 6 Yale H.R. & Dev. L. J. 45 (2003);


Jeffrey S. Morton, The Legality of NATO’s Intervention in Yugoslavia in 1999:  Implications for the Progressive Development of International Law, 9 ILSA J. Int’l & Comp. L. 75 (2002);


Jennifer L. Czernecki, The United Nations’ Paradox:  The Battle Between Humanitarian Intervention and State Sovereignty, 41 Duq. L. Rev. 391 (2003);


George K. Walker, Principles for Collective Humanitarian Intervention to Succor Other Countries’ Imperiled Indigenous Nationals, 18 Am. U. Int’l Rev. 35 (2002);


James Meernik, Steven C. Poe, & Erum Shaikh, Human Rights, Democracy, and U.S. Military Intervention, Paper Prepared for the Annual Convention of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago (2003) [See the supplement to Chapter 10 for an abstract of this paper.]

[1] Section V., The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, September 2002, available at (last visited June 28, 2003).

[2] "Liberty for the Iraqi people is a great moral cause and a great strategic goal. The people of Iraq deserve it, and the security of all nations requires it." President's Remarks at the United Nations General Assembly, September 12, 2003, available at (last visited June 28, 2003)

[3] See Coursebook at 348.

[4] Human Rights Watch World Report 1989, Human Rights Watch, available at (last visited June 28, 2003).

[5] In 2003 mass graves from that period were uncovered and witnesses provided more information about the scope of the repression.  See The Mass Graves of al-Mahawil: The Truth Uncovered, Human Rights Watch, 2003, available at (last visited November 17, 2003)

[6] President's Remarks at the United Nations General Assembly, September 12, 2003, available at (last visited June 28, 2003)

[7] U.N. Doc. S/RES 1441 (2002) available at (last visited June 28, 2003).

[8] News Release: President Pleased with U.N. Vote, November 8, 2002, available at (last visited June 28, 2003).

[9] United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) available at (last visited June 28, 2003).

[11] Presidential Remarks: President Says Saddam Hussein Must Leave Iraq Within 48 Hours, March 17, 2003, available at (last visited June 28, 2003).

[12] Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus, US Hedges on Finding Iraqi Weapons, Washington Post, May 29, 2003, at A01, available at (last visited November 17, 2003).

[13] President Bush Announces Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended, President Bush’ Speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln, available at (last visited May 24, 2003).

[14] See Coursebook at 346-48.

[15] Available at (last visited November 17, 2003).

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