Over the past several decades, states have used international asset freezes with increasing frequency as a mechanism for promoting human rights abroad. Yet the international law governing this mechanism, which I refer to as ‘humanitarian financial intervention,’ remains fragmented. This article offers the first systematic legal analysis of humanitarian financial intervention. It identifies six humanitarian purposes that states may pursue through asset freezes: preserving foreign assets from misappropriation, incapacitating foreign states or foreign nationals, coercing foreign states or foreign nationals to forsake abusive practices, compensating victims, ameliorating humanitarian crises through humanitarian aid or post-conflict reconstruction, and punishing human rights violators. Whether intervening states may pursue these objectives in any given context depends upon the interplay between several international legal regimes, including international investment law, collective-security agreements such as the UN Charter, the customary law of countermeasures, the law of armed conflict, and customary law governing the enforcement of judicial decisions. By disentangling the various international legal regimes that govern humanitarian financial intervention, this article furnishes a preliminary road map for evaluating the legality of past, present, and future financial interventions—including asset freezes directed against the Qaddafi regime during the 2011 Libyan Revolution.
*Please note: This paper was published in the European Journal of International Law, Volume 24, issue 2. It can be found on the EJIL website.