Belfer Center Home > Publications > Academic Papers & Reports > Journal Articles > When Duty Calls: A Pragmatic Standard of Humanitarian Intervention

EmailEmail   PrintPrint Bookmark and Share

"When Duty Calls: A Pragmatic Standard of Humanitarian Intervention"

A Bosnian Muslim woman reacts next to the coffin of a relative during a funeral for 34 Bosnian Muslims killed at the beginning of the 1992-95 Bosnian war.
AP Photo

"When Duty Calls: A Pragmatic Standard of Humanitarian Intervention"

Journal Article, International Security, volume 37, issue 1, pages 41-80

Summer 2012

Author: Robert Pape, Editorial Board Member, Quarterly Journal: International Security

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Quarterly Journal: International Security



When should the United States and other members of the international community intervene to stop a government from harming its own citizens? Since World War II, the main standard for intervention has been the high bar of genocide, although the international community has rarely acted to stop it. The main alternative—the “responsibility to protect”—would set the bar so low that virtually every instance of anarchy or tyranny would create unbounded obligations beyond the capacity of states to fulfill. A new standard—the pragmatic standard of humanitarian intervention—can help guide decisionmakers on when to intervene to stop governments from targeting their own citizens. The standard has three requirements: (1) an ongoing campaign of mass homicide sponsored by the government; (2) a viable plan for intervention with reasonable estimates of low casualties for the intervening forces; and (3) a workable strategy for creating lasting local security for the threatened population. The pragmatic standard was met in the recent successful intervention in Libya as well as in other cases over the last twenty years, and it should become the basis for deciding which humanitarian crises justify international intervention in the future.


For more information about this publication please contact the IS Editorial Assistant at 617-495-1914.

For Academic Citation:

Robert A. Pape. "When Duty Calls: A Pragmatic Standard of Humanitarian Intervention." International Security 37, no. 1 (Summer 2012): 41-80.

Bookmark and Share

Events Calendar

We host a busy schedule of events throughout the fall, winter and spring. Past guests include: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, former Vice President Al Gore, and former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev.