This article revisits the debate over the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's unilateral use of force in Kosovo in 1999 to help better understand why scholars and policymakers continue to disagree about the issue of humanitarian intervention. Employing a method of comparative literature review, the article focuses on legal, constructivist, neo-Marxist and liberal accounts of the Kosovo action. It is argued that the intervention proved divisive because it speaks to substantive differences in the meta-views of scholars regarding the source and nature of legitimacy and sovereignty, and the values that they ascribe to the international community. Many of the disagreements turned on whether a scholar prioritises justice and freedom or fairness and equality, and whether they emphasise the natural and universal moral foundations of international law and legitimacy or base these foundations more procedurally on state consent and sovereign equality. Finally, intellectual polarisation about the Kosovo intervention stemmed from differing views on the existence and desirability of larger global trends, such as US hegemony or ‘Empire’, in international law and world politics following the Cold War. The policy and theoretical implications of these findings are briefly considered in the conclusion, including some reflections on what the irreconcilable arguments over the Kosovo action mean for the legality and legitimacy of future humanitarian interventions.

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Journal on the Use of Force and International Law
Department of Law and Legal Studies

Richmond, S. (2016). Why is humanitarian intervention so divisive? Revisiting the debate over the 1999 Kosovo intervention. Journal on the Use of Force and International Law, 3(2), 234–259. doi:10.1080/20531702.2016.1184856