Source: Chatham House

The  Friendly  Relations  Declaration  (UN  General Assembly,  1970),  included  under  the  principle  of  non-intervention  the  following  paragraph: No  State  or  group  of  States  has  the  right  to  intervene,  directly  or  indirectly,  for  any  reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State. Consequently, armed intervention and  all  other  forms  of  interference  or  attempted  threats  against  the  personality  of  the  State  or against its political, economic and cultural elements, are in violation of international law. 

The  more  common  term  for  the  legal  principle  is  “non-intervention”,  though  “non-interference” is also used.  In many contexts the two terms seem to be interchangeable, but “non-interference” suggests a wider prohibition, particularly when used in addition to intervention.  Yet   “the  interference  must  be forcible  or  dictatorial,  or  otherwise  coercive,  in  effect  depriving  the  state  intervened against  of  control  over  the  matter  in  question.   Interference  pure  and  simple  is  not intervention”  

The  principle  of  non-intervention  is  the  mirror  image  of  the  sovereignty  of  States. The  the  prohibition  of  intervention  “is  a  corollary  of  every  state’s  right  to sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence”.  It is closely linked to the concept of domestic affairs, what the French tend to call domaine réservé;  and also to  the  international  legal  limits  on  a  State’s  jurisdiction  to  prescribe  and  to  enforce.     

What  is  prohibited  is  dictatorial  interference  in  what  the  International  Court  of  Justice referred to in Nicaragua  as  “matters  which  each  State  is  permitted,  by  the  principle  of  State  sovereignty,  to  decide  freely.  One  of  these  is  the  choice  of  a  political,  economic, social  and  cultural  system, and  the  formulation  of  foreign  policy.”   Since  the  reach  of international law  is constantly changing, so too is the line between what is, and what is not, covered by the principle of non-intervention.

The  general  principle  includes  the  prohibition  on  the  use  of  force,  as  set  forth  in  the Charter.  But  the  principle  of  non-intervention  in  the  internal  affairs  of  States  also requires  that  a  State  not  intervene  in  the  internal  affairs  of  other  States  in  dictatorial ways not involving the use of force, for example making payments to political parties and other forms of interference in the internal political processes of the State.  

It  should  be  noted  at  the  outset  that  intervention  (even  military  intervention)  with  the consent,  duly  given,  of  the  Government  of  a  State  is  not  precluded.  ‘Intervention   by   invitation’   is   notoriously   open   to   abuse.  Does   the   requesting   Government  have  to  be  in  effective  control  of  the  territory  of  the  State  at  the  time  it  makes  the  request,  when  it  may  just  have  been  evicted  from  the  capital  or  even  have departed  the  country?   It  is  sometimes  suggested  that  intervention  in  a  civil  war  on  the  side of the Government and at its request is unlawful, but there is little support for this in practice.  Intervention on the side of those opposing the Government, on the other hand, is clearly prohibited.  Whether there is an exception to the principle of non-intervention in the  case  of  assistance  to  peoples  seeking  to  exercise  the  right  of  self-determination remains  controversial.    Another  question  could  be  intervention  in  a  State  which  has  no government capable of issuing an invitation.  (‘Failed States’ and ‘rogue States’ are not legal categories. Such terms are best avoided, at least in legal discourse.)

The existence of the principle

The  sub-title  “Non-interference  in  a  state’s  internal  affairs  used  to  be  a  rule  of international  law:  is  it  still?”  was  intended  to  be  rhetorical.    There  is  no  doubt  that  the principle of non-intervention remains well-established in contemporary international law. It  is  part  of  customary  international  law,  as  the  International  Court  of  Justice  has reaffirmed on a number of occasions.  And it is also reflected in many treaties, such as the  Charter  of  the  Organization  of  American  States  and  the  Constitutive  Act  of  the African Union. While not expressly set out in the UN Charter, it is generally held to be implicit in various of its provisions, in particular the principle of the sovereign equality of States (Article 2.1).  It was of course included in the 1970 Friendly Relations Declaration. 

The International Court expounded  on  the  principle  of non-intervention  in  its  1986  judgment  in  the  Nicaragua  case:   “The  principle  of  non-intervention [so said the Court] involves the right of every sovereign State to conduct its affairs without  outside  interference; though  examples  of  trespass  against  this  principle  are  not  infrequent,  the  Court  considers  that  it  is  part  and  parcel  of  customary  international  law.    [...]  international  law  requires  political  integrity  [...]  to  be  respected” (para. 202).  The Court went on to say that “the principle forbids all States or groups of States to intervene directly or indirectly in the internal or external affairs of other States”  and that “a prohibited intervention must accordingly be one bearing on matters in which each  State is  permitted,  by  the  principle  of  State  sovereignty,  to  decide  freely.  One  of  these  is  the  choice  of  a  political,  economic,  social  and  cultural  system,  and  the  formulation  of  foreign  policy.  Intervention  is  wrongful  when  it  uses  methods  of  coercion in regard to such choices, which must remain free ones. [...] the element of coercion [...] defines, and indeed forms the very essence of, prohibited intervention” (para. 205).  The  Court  also  dealt  with  the  principle  of  non-interference  in  its  judgment  of  19 December  2005  in Democratic  Republic  of  Congo  v  Uganda ,  when  it  concluded  “that Uganda  had  violated  the  sovereignty  and  also  the  territorial  integrity  of  the  DRC. Uganda’s  actions  equally  constituted  an  interference  in  the  internal  affairs  of  the  DRC and in the civil war raging there (para.165).  

The principle includes the following aspects. 

(a)  The  prohibition  of  the  threat  or  use  of  force  in  international  relations,  as  set forth in Article 2.4 of the UN Charter.

This  is  the  most  important  manifestation  of  the  principle  of  non-intervention,  yet  the international  law  on  the  use  of  force  is  not  usually  thought  of  in  terms  of  the  principle. Action  in  self-defence,  including  the  rescue  of  nationals  where  the  territorial  State  is  unable or unwilling to do so, does not infringe the principle of non-interference. On the other hand,  threats to use force (which are of course contrary to the Charter but which nevertheless  seem  quite  popular  in  some  quarters)  will  often  be  seen  as  contravening the  principle,  even  in  cases  where  it  is  not  clear  that  if  the  threat  were  carried  out  it  would necessarily be unlawful.

(b) Article 2.7 of the UN Charter 

Article 2.7 of the Charter of the United Nations provides that – “Nothing contained in the present  Charter  shall  authorize  the  United  Nations  to  intervene  in  matters  which  are essentially  within  the  domestic  jurisdiction  of  any  state  or  shall  require  the  Members  to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter; but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII.”  Practice under Article 2.7 has developed over time, and its practical importance is by now significantly reduced. An important point to bear in mind is that, with an activist Security Council, much of what may  be  seen  as  ‘intervention’  is in  fact  action  authorised  by  the  UN  Security  Council under  Chapter  VII  of  the  Charter,  and  so  does  not  infringe  the  principle  of  non-intervention. 

(c) International human rights law and mechanisms

The  growth  of  the  international  law  on  human  rights,  mostly  in  treaties  (but  also  in customary  international  law),  and  in  particular  acceptance  of  the  rights  of  States  to criticise  other  States’  human  rights  record  and  the  inter-State  complaint  mechanisms, has made a very large inroad into the domain réservé of States.    

(d) Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, article 41

It  seems  to  be  still  well-established  the  diplomats  should  not  interfere  in  the  internal affairs of the State to which they are accredited.  But even here, as the leading work on the subject points out, there is a “tension between the duty of a diplomat under Article 41 of the Vienna Convention, not to interfere in the internal affairs of the receiving State and the  opinion  of  liberal  States  that  human  rights  are  a  matter  of  legitimate  international concern  whose  active  promotion  is  a  major  part  of  their  foreign  policy”   

(e) Other applications of the principle 

If the existence, in customary international law, of the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of States is beyond doubt, its exact content not so clear. Outside the area of the law on the use of force, it is not always possible to be categorical about what is, and  what  is  not,  prohibited  by  the  principle.  Much  depends  on  the  context, on  the relations between the States concerned, and perhaps their level of political development. 

The principle of non-intervention and the limits on a State’s jurisdiction can be seen as related.  Among activities which, depending on the circumstances, contravene the principle of non-intervention are:

(a)  Interference  in  political  activities  (such  as  through  financial  or  other  support  for particular  political  parties  or  candidates,  or  even  perhaps  comment  on  upcoming elections or on the candidates; 

(b)  Support  for  secession;      

(c)  Seeking  to  overthrow  the  government  -  so-called  ‘regime  change’,  especially  in  the case  of  ‘rogue  States’     It has occasionally been suggested that intervention in order to restore (or establish) democracy is permitted under international law “[S]uch a proposition is not acceptable in international law” ., p. 1048).

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