Review of International Studies, 43 (1), 2017, pp. 50-72.
Even scholars who support multilateralism in principle frequently question the value of securing approval from existing multilateral bodies for humanitarian intervention. The United Nations (UN) and regional organisations such as NATO, the argument goes, are far from democratic; furthermore, multilateralism is often a recipe for doing nothing; therefore, unauthorised intervention should be permissible in circumstances of ‘humanitarian necessity’. This article maintains that although today’s multilateral organisations and related procedures for authorising armed intervention may be suboptimal, they have significant output legitimacy. First, existing authorisation procedures reduce the risk of destabilising conflict spirals among powerful states. Second, they diminish the likelihood that humanitarianism will be used as a pretext. Third, they reduce epistemic problems concerning the identification of a just cause for intervention and thus the risk of accidental abuse. Fourth, they minimise the ‘moral hazard’ of humanitarian intervention. Finally, compliance with multilateral procedures is increasingly required for successful peacebuilding. This leads me to conclude that humanitarian warfare should always be authorised by the UN or regional multilateral organisations.