We have guns, but have we the right to fight?

The Ethics of War
March 31, 2006

Careful consideration of the circumstances that constitute a 'just conflict' throws up insights, ironies and ethical quagmires, Margaret Anstee finds.

Not so many years ago, on becoming Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the late Robin Cook announced that the new Labour Government would follow an ethical foreign policy. Arousing great expectations in some quarters and scepticism in others, it seemed a bold innovation. Subsequent events would show how difficult it was to fulfil this pledge; not the least of them was the Iraq War, which led to Cook becoming a Labour rebel.

The link between the ethics of war and foreign policy is self-evident, especially if one subscribes to the dictum, expressed by Von Clausewitz nearly two centuries ago, that "war is a mere continuation of policy by other means". The studies in this book bear out the acuity of this remark, even though it is not cited, and the great military strategist merits only four mentions. They also demonstrate that ethical concerns are by no means a new phenomenon but have exercised the minds of moral philosophers, military strategists and statesmen from time immemorial.

The 13 chapters are by individual authors, all distinguished scholars save two non-academics, Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, and Sir Michael Quinlan, a former senior civil servant in the Ministry of Defence. The first seven chapters trace trends in thinking from ancient times in different religions, cultures and regions, while the rest deal with contemporary problems. There is, however, a recurring theme as the early chapters indicate the relevance of earlier traditions to current conflicts while the later ones quote past sources in support of their arguments.

The first section is likely to appeal more to an academic audience, though the assiduous general reader can glean some interesting nuggets of information. For example, although western Christians considered the Crusades a "holy war", their Byzantine counterparts thought it had to be a "just war", undertaken only as last resort. This clash of views led to the conquest of Byzantium by the westerners in the Fourth Crusade, a signal historical irony, since Christendom came out of the wars more divided than Islam had been harmed. The author of this chapter, Angeliki Laoui, resists the temptation to draw modern parallels.

There are also illuminating insights in the chapters on Islam and Judaism, by John Kelsey and Norman Solomon respectively, which show that, however misguided the thinking behind the terrorist tactics of al-Qaeda and the Zionists, it is dangerous to rush to simplistic judgments without analysing the complex ramifications that lie behind the groups' thinking if such movements are to be successfully countered. Significant nuances are also highlighted - for example, the fact that some prominent Muslim scholars deplored the attacks against US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the twin towers in New York on September 11, 2001, where innocent civilians perished, but did not condemn the bombing of the US barracks in Saudi Arabia, where the target was a foreign military presence on Arab soil.

Conflicting interpretations of jus ad bellum (just cause for war) and jus in bello (just conduct of war) abound through history and the book. In part two, the provocative proposition is made that in "asymmetric" (that is, unequal) war, phenomena increasingly experienced today, the stronger party should be subject to more stringent jus in bello requirements than the weaker side. Morally attractive as such a precept is, it is hard to see it working in the real world.

The chapter on preventive war, by Jeff McMahan, concludes that such intervention invariably involves attacks on innocent people, implying that it cannot be justified morally. Surely, however, there can be circumstances in which the human benefits can outweigh the negative aspects? The trouble is that we are not in a world of black and white but one in which shades of grey predominate and obscure the view ahead. That is also evident in the chapter on humanitarian intervention and war to protect human rights.

Richard Norman dissects the concept of human rights, concluding that it is "epistemologically indeterminate", a rather pedantic way of saying that there is no agreed method of establishing the rights of human beings and that it is therefore difficult to justify intervention on grounds of their abuse.

The implications of sovereignty are also debated at some length, and there is no doubt that it is a candescent issue in today's world. The suggestion made a few years ago to the UN General Assembly by Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General, that intervention could be justified for humanitarian reasons, raised a storm of protest among some member states that claimed that this would be a violation of sovereignty. It is a sombre paradox of our age that, in an increasingly globalised and technologically advanced world, the banner of sovereignty is still waved so vigorously, though many of its traditional features have lost much of their relevance.

Norman's argument then turns to military intervention and concludes that it is singularly unsuited to the upholding of human rights, not only because the latter are so hard to define but because it is coercive and furthermore breaches a "pragmatic principle of sovereignty" that Norman holds to be "the only feasible basis for an international order based on agreement". He does, however, concede that "there is no objection in principle to interference in the internal affairs of states with the aim of protecting or promoting the human rights of their members". How such a principle can have any real impact in hard cases without the possibility of reinforcing diplomatic persuasion with some stronger action, even as a last resort, is not explored. Nor are the various forms that military intervention can take given as much attention as the many possible interpretations of human rights. By definition, UN peacekeeping mandates under Chapter VII of the UN Charter embrace the possible use of force under strictly drawn rules of engagement and even under Chapter VI, Security Council resolutions always include the authorisation to use force, not only in self-defence but also to protect civilians under attack. This is to prevent atrocities such as the Srebrenica massacre from being perpetrated unimpeded. Norman does make a glancing reference to the UN military intervention in East Timor in 1999 as an operation that was successful in protecting human rights, but he then dismisses it from the argument because "it was not a war". In the absence of any clear definition, it would seem that military intervention is considered in a very limited context, whereas the situations that policy-makers have to contend with today are far more complex.

Before taking grave decisions of life and death, such as going to war, it is, of course, imperative that policy-makers look at all sides of the question. This is what these writers do, but some readers may have the impression that the minutiae of their arguments border on exploring how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. This may appear to be the oversimplified reaction of someone who has been at the sharp end of peacekeeping and conflict resolution, but it is hard not to sympathise with statesmen faced with dire decisions who could well feel bewildered by this plethora of conflicting considerations. The one thing that does emerge clearly is that they can never act with the comfortable assurance of being supported by moral certainty. The five criteria quoted in the introduction by the editors Richard Sorabji and David Rodin give more specific guidance:

"1. There should be just cause. 2. Reasonable attempts at peaceful resolution should have been exhausted (the war should be a 'last resort').

3. The right authority should authorise the war. 4. War should not make things even worse than they were already (proportionality). 5. War aims should be achievable." But in real life, even these factors are usually hard to evaluate with any degree of certitude except with the benefit of hindsight.

Anthony Coates cites the views on war expressed by the Union General William Sherman during the American Civil War, remarking that they are "commonly (though perhaps misleadingly) referred to as 'realism'". For this kind of realist, he goes on, the "ethics of war" is a self-contradictory notion. Yet surely there is some intermediate position. From this viewpoint, the last two chapters, by Harries and Quinlan, are likely to be more accessible to the general reader, both in style and content. The former makes a scholarly but admirably pragmatic analysis of the issues raised by the Cold War and the application of just war theory in the debate on nuclear deterrence during the period 1959-89. Quinlan deals with Britain's wars since 1945: Suez in 1956; the recovery of the Falklands in 1982; the expulsion of Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991; the Kosovo episode in 1999; and, finally, the second Gulf War. He reviews the propositions that led to the decision to invade Iraq and concedes the difficulty of assessing them objectively. In his view, "only the upholding of UN authority is solidly sustainable", and on this basis he questions whether so extreme a step, costing many lives, was justified.

This is one of the rare references in the book to the role of the UN in maintaining international peace and security. Quinlan is also the only author to mention Rwanda. The emphasis throughout is on Europe and the Middle East. Afghanistan is mentioned, but no attention is given to Africa or to the special problems arising there and in other developing regions of the world from the proliferation of intra-state conflicts since the end of the Cold War. These raise even more complicated moral and ethical issues for the international community and leaders of countries possessing the potential to intervene. It would have been of great relevance to discuss the ethics of non-intervention. Inaction in the 1990s in Rwanda and Angola, among other conflict situations, led to humanitarian disasters of horrific proportions that could have been averted by appropriate and timely military intervention.

Dame Margaret Anstee is a former Under-Secretary General of the UN and was a special representative of the Secretary-General in Angola.

The Ethics of War: Shared Problems in Different Traditions.

Editor - Richard Sorabji and David Rodin
Publisher - Ashgate
Pages - 253
Price - £55.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 0 7546 5448 6 and 5449 4

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