Kosovo, East Timor, and the New International Law

A Web Project by Andrew Bell
How We Get Into Wars, Fall 1999
Professor John Setear
University of Virginia School of Law


        On March 23, 1999, after months of debate and unavailing negotiations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization did something it had never done before in the fifty previous years of its existence:  NATO used coercive force against a sovereign, independent nation.  The fact that NATO had never before authorized this level of force, even during its forty-year history facing direct Soviet invasion, spoke to the gravity of the situation its members states faced.

        But NATOšs seventy-seven day pounding of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was aimed not at any direct threat against NATO itself, but protecting Yugoslaviašs citizens against their own government.  NATO waged armed intervention without UN approval against a sovereign nation for the sake of humanitarian principles, and was congratulated by the international community for it.  As a result, the Kosovo War changed the landscape of international law, establishing an international norm for humanitarian intervention by regional organizations.

        What is the status of international law today?  The results of the war in Kosovo point to a change in international legal principles.  And by applying these principles to the recent crisis in East Timor, the extent of the legal norms coming into force can be seen more clearly.  They show that humanitarian intervention is now an established, accepted and enforced basis for international military action.

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