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Is it just Just War?

At first glance the six stipulations for jus ad bellum seems legitimate and something we can all agree on. The simple and comprehensible principles for going to war might even seem like an oversimplification of very complex state of affairs. Is it really possible to make six universalistic statements that can justify going to war? Isn’t it too easy?

  • The first criteria ‘just cause’, seems like an obvious truth, and can probably be agreed upon by all states. But, on closer inspection, who decides what a just cause is?
  • Proportionate cause must also raise questions, because how do we measure the consequences and outcome of war? E.g. how many lives are worth the spread of democracy?
  • The third criteria evolves around ‘right intentions’, here we revisit the critic from the ‘just case’ criteria, who decides what the right intentions are, but also who can figure out if there are any hidden and less morally correct intentions at stake, as revenge of a hated nation?
  • The decision to go to war must be made by the right authority, but what defines legit leadership varies all over the world. Some would say democratic elections while others would point to religious leadership. So how can we make a stipulation of proper authority?
  • The fifth criteria are ‘reasonable prospect of success’. We wonder, as in the case of the second criteria, how to calculate certainties in times of warfare? And also, what is a reasonable prospect 30 pct., 50 pct. or 90 pct. – how certain are certain?
  • The last criteria relates to warfare as last resort. This might be the most comprehensible criterion, but it also lacks a definition of when it is last resort. When has a nation tried every other way of adequately securing their just aim? And furthermore the uneven access to resources and possibilities for alternative peace solutions throughout the world nations challenges this claim. Are there greater expectations towards the effort of The United States compared to Burkina Faso? (Guthrie & Quinlan 2007: 12-13)

We find that there are different shortcomings in all the above-mentioned stipulations, but we identify a common glaring challenge in the ‘Just War’ theory namely the difficulty (impossibility even?) in composing a universal theory that is applicable in all kinds of warfare and states.     

To be even more critical, can those kinds of oversimplified theories be used for legitimizing war? Depending on the perspective, many (if not all) wars can be fitted into this theory. This means that every warring nation could proclaim that they comply with the six stipulations for jus ad bellum, and therefore justifying going to war.

Inspired by the blog post by PhD. student Benjamin Studebaker, who gives a general critique on Just War Theory, we can join his view on the necessity of multiple just war theories. This would make up for some of the challenges with one arbitrary universal just war theory, hence it could be specified towards more concrete situations of war (Studebaker 2013).

Is there such a thing as justifiable war?

Is there such a thing as justifiable war?

Guthrie & Quinlan (2007) Just War – The just war tradition: Ethics in modern warfare, Walker & Company.

Studebaker, Benjamin (2011) A Critique of Just War Theory: https://benjaminstudebaker.com/2013/02/18/a-critique-of-just-war-theory/

  • Adina Stroe Ren, Johanne Kloster Kirk, Anna-Kathrine Gottschalk-Hansen, Ida Harder Nielsen and Pernille Viola Robrahn

2 comments to Is it just Just War?

  • lgissel

    You make an interesting argument, which I think is persuasive. The consequence is that all wars are unjust. However, are there any reasons why going to war would be just? Or are all wars simply unjust? And who should decide, the UN? Was dropping the nuclear bombs over Japan in 1945 just? Who should be held to account for having waged an unjust war? Thanks also for pointing us to the Studebaker blog, it looks interesting.

  • JRasmussen

    Nice illustration.
    Following up on Line’s comments about accountability and who is to decide on whether wars are just or unjust, i can’t help thinking of an excerpt from former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s new book I red this morning. Fogh Rasmussen problematises that the populations of leading NATO countries are not willing to go to war in defence of a fellow NATO country despite the obligation to do so according to the NATO treaty.
    The question is, do such internal divisions between leaders and populations challenge the ideas of just war (jus ad bellum)? Or does it potentially challenge ideas of what is just to do in war (jus in bello) when the warring parties must stand accountable after the deed? Or does it mean that it is ultimately the leaders who are responsible and accountable?

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