International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International Judicial Academy, Washington, D.C., with assistance from the
American Society of International Law

Spring 2014 Issue

General Principles of International Law


A Refresher on the Principle of Non-Intervention

Carolyn A. Dubay

By: Carolyn A. Dubay, Associate Editor, International Judicial Monitor and Assistant Professor of Law, Charlotte Law School

With the crisis in Ukraine continuing, and Russia’s stance that it has the legal authority to intervene militarily in Ukraine to protect Russian civilians, it is time to revisit the non-intervention principle.   The non-intervention rule is a principle of international law that restricts the ability of outside nations to interfere with the internal affairs of another nation. At its core, the principle is a corollary to the right of territorial sovereignty possessed by each nation.  The exact scope of the non-intervention principle, however, is often debated.  For example, the duty of non-intervention could be understood to prevent all outside military intervention, yet there are historical examples of such action that are generally considered “legal” interventions (such as humanitarian intervention).  Similarly, the understanding of what constitutes “intervention” has many gray areas, including whether it includes only the threat of military force, or whether economic sanctions, cyber warfare or other kinds of non-military intervention would fall within the rule.

Famed Swiss legal philosopher Emmerich de Vattel was arguably the first jurist to articulate the non-intervention principle in his treatise The Law of Nations, published in 1758.  The willingness of states to abide by the principle, however, has waxed and waned since that time, depending on the political agenda and national interests involved.  For example, with the rise of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War, the Soviets adamantly opposed any outside intervention or influence to destabilize the political and economic order in the newly formed Soviet republics, a stance that was enforced most visibly by the erection of the Berlin Wall.  At the same time, Soviet takeovers of these nations and the failure to allow for self-determination directly contravened the principle of non-intervention.  Similarly, post-World War II colonial powers relied on the duty of non-intervention to prevent outside interference with efforts to control colonial liberation movements, while pro-liberation groups argued that intervention was justified.

In contemporary times, the non-intervention principle received official United Nations recognition when the General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention and Interference in the Domestic Affairs of States in 1965.  The International Court of Justice also weighed in on the interpretation of the non-intervention principle in the Nicaragua case brought by Nicaragua against the United States, which arose based on allegations of American support for contra rebels.  As explained in the summary of the 1986 judgment:

The principle of non-intervention involves the right of every sovereign State to conduct its affairs without outside interference . . . . As to the content of the principle in customary law, the Court defines the constitutive elements which appear relevant in this case: a prohibited intervention must be one bearing on matters in which each State is permitted, by the principle of State sovereignty, to decide freely (for example the choice of a political, economic, social and cultural system, and formulation of foreign policy). Intervention is wrongful when it uses, in regard to such choices, methods of coercion, particularly force, either in the direct form of military action or in the indirect form of support for subversive activities in another State.

More recently, in 2005, the International Court of Justice reiterated the principle of non-intervention in its judgment against Uganda for supporting rebel forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  As the Court stated in paragraph 164 of its judgment, and quoting the Nicaragua case, “the principle of non-intervention prohibits a State ‘to intervene, directly or indirectly, with or without armed force, in support of an internal opposition in another State.’”



While the traditional understanding of the non-intervention principle limited the sovereign power of individual states, it has been extended to also restrict the power of the United Nations when engaging in collective action.  Article 2(7) of the UN Charter expressly provides that other than Security Council actions authorized under Chapter VII of the Charter, “[n]othing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state . . .”  Similarly, multinational corporations and other private entities could arguably violate the non-intervention principle by using their substantial economic influence to coerce sovereign governments into adopting any number of legal, political or economic policies.  Such liability, however, would necessarily involve attributing the coercive behavior to the home state of the organization. 

With the principle of non-intervention firmly embedded in international law, the continuing dilemma for the international community is how to determine when interference in another nation’s internal affairs rises to the level of “coercive” in violation of international law.  The direct threat or use of military force against a nation is obviously coercive, but in today’s international environment with myriad treaty obligations and a globally integrated market, military means are hardly the only mechanism to “coerce” a nation into submission or compliance with another nation’s wishes.  The Nicaragua case implicitly recognized that the non-intervention principle could extend to indirect interference through other means, such as economic and political pressure.  At the same time, however, it is difficult to draw a line between permissible international pressure and impermissible coercion. 

One particularly murky area with respect to non-intervention doctrine is the legality of subversive intervention through propaganda campaigns or control of media messages.  From a non-intervention perspective, such actions would be illegal only to the extent that they are intended to be coercive by intentionally instigating or aggravating civil unrest.   Similarly, economic intervention in a foreign state may be permissible if it is intended to exert economic pressure to protect a nation’s own economic interests, but it could be considered impermissible if it was intended to coerce the development of internal policies.

Complicating the issue of defining the parameters of the non-intervention principle is the fact that there are many justifications for intervention that have developed either by custom, international agreement or even fiat.  For example, an intervening state may claim that it had consent (through agreement or other means) to engage in the challenged tactics.  There is also the emerging issue of when humanitarian intervention would be permitted in civil war or other violent internal confrontations.  Most recently, the issue in the United States is the extent to which financial and military aid should be given to rebels in the civil war in Syria.  If such support is considered a form of indirect intervention, then the issue becomes whether it is justified as a humanitarian intervention given the widespread loss of civilian life, or to support the right of self-determination. 

Returning to the issue of Russia’s role in supporting pro-Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine, Russia has asserted as a justification for any intervention the right to protect Russian nationals from harm.   Unlike humanitarian intervention, intervention to protect a state’s nationals living abroad is justified by a state’s own duty towards its citizens wherever they reside.  The ability of a state to invoke this justification, however, consistently straddles the line between legitimate and illegal.  For example, the United States relied on this justification to intervene in Grenada in 1983, and consequently suffered international condemnation through a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly.  A more recent extension of the duty to protect a nation’s citizens was President George W. Bush’s declaration of the Bush Doctrine to justify preemptive military action to prevent future terrorist attacks on American citizens at home or abroad.  For Russia, therefore, the debate about its current and future role in Ukraine undoubtedly highlights the difficulties in enforcing the non-intervention principle in today’s complex, integrated and global economy.

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with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

Editor: James G. Apple.
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