A time for war

This is, obviously, a huge issue and one that I’m not going to thoroughly cover in one post, but it’s pretty important to the consideration of other related subjects and so warrants initial discussion. 

As a general principle, I am opposed to war. I’ve always considered myself a pretty pacifistic person, and have been known to participate in the odd anti-war rally. Yet, despite this, I find myself inclined towards military intervention in some circumstances.

You see, I’m also opposed to grievous infringements of human rights. Genocide would seem to be the most obvious example, but there are other forms of rights violations that are systematic and brutal, such as regimes that practice ongoing torture, execution and imprisonment of political opponents who themselves have not engaged in violence. In this, I agree (generally) with Alonzo Fyfe in his post dealing with this subject.

I find the use of the term ‘just war’ highly problematic. For starters, it’s a term that arose as a result of theological debates about when war is justifiable. I don’t find much use in these debates because they revolve around points of spiritual morality that I have no use for. Universal values, a version of which I recognize and do subscribe to, may align in part with some of these spiritual beliefs, but that’s a subject for another time. 

It has been said that the criteria established as a result of these debates, however, provide useful guides for decision-makers. These criteria, each of which is a separate bone of contention, are (with thanks to Alvin Cline):

Just cause – the notion that the principles involved, including consideration of precursor events, are sufficiently grave to warrant war.

Right intention – dealing with issues of immediate objectives.

Legitimate authority – which acts to ensure that, for example, in a democracy a government doesn’t act in direct contravention of the will of the people, or that in an ‘international community’ which has created the institution of the United Nations authorization is sought through that body.

Last resort – which would appear self-evident but is complicated by what we each might consider the last possible reasonable attempt other than war to overcome the clash of principles involved. 

Probability of success – again, this would seem somewhat self-explanatory. Yet if we consider, for example, the recent Iraqi conflict the issues become more murky. Judging success against stated objectives may only provide part of the picture of the impact of a war.

Added to these principles concerning when it is arguably permissible to conduct a war are others about the conduct of war, which form the foundations of the laws of war enshrined in various international instruments, such as the four Geneva Conventions.

An initial observation on these principles: the justification of war according to criteria such as these acts to reinforce and legitimize state-state power relations in the world system. If we recognize the inherent problems in determining which of competing claims of ‘justness’ should prevail, in what ‘intentions’ are appropriate and in how to determine what constitutes the ‘last resort’, the remaining criteria rely on relative strength vis-à-vis other states. Relatively stronger states will be more forcefully able to impose their view of what is ‘just’ and ‘right’ according to when they think it is necessary to do so.

Obtaining legitimate authority from the United Nations (as opposed to domestic constituencies) for any of the Security Council states only applies where the interests of two or more Permanent Members clash. For any one of them to act in such circumstances risks an escalation of conflict that none could afford. In any other circumstances, however, it is historically the case that Security Council states can and will act unilaterally if they see fit.

Similarly, the relative strength of states is essential in calculating the probability of success. For any conflict between a Security Council member or members and smaller states, meeting this criteria would appear to be a walk-up start.

Beyond this, there is a very serious problem in considering the United Nations Security Council as an appropriate legitimizing authority for any conflict. Permanent Member states have themselves participated in breaches of international humanitarian law as well, arguably, as engaging in aggressive wars. I support the existence of the United Nations but strongly believe in structural reform for the Organization, including to the Security Council, which could alleviate some of the tensions between the Charter and Security Council practice.

As I said in the introduction to this post, these are all issues that feed into much larger and more complex debates, to which I will return in future.

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