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What is just war?

Determining whether war is just or unjust will always be a matter of standpoint and perspective. There will always be some who fight against the use of force and who feels that war should only be the very last resort for solving conflicts. Others might choose to go to war because they find the alternative unbearable and because they believe that with warfare they will make the world safer and secure peace and stability. No matter how different actors view war and when it might be necessary to use force almost all nation states agree that in the time of war it is absolutely critical to have certain moral limitations applying to war (Guthrie & Quinlan, 2007:1-2). Moral accountability is a part of being human and we have to be able to question what is right and wrong to do. This is especially important in extreme situations like war (Guthrie & Quinlan, 2007:1). The conditions for warfare have changed a lot; rapid technology advances and operations which do not fid tidily into well-known boxes like formally recognized war between two sovereign states. These changes have made the decisions which have to be taken by governments and armed forces at all levels more difficult and more complex leaving us in ever greater need of a practicable and significant moral compass (Guthrie & Quinlan, 2007:3).

Guthrie and Quinlan argues that the Just War tradition originating from ethical analysis developed by Christian thinkers during a long time span is still the best available foundation for providing the very much needed moral compass (Guthrie & Quinlan, 2007:2,4). The Just War tradition and the thinking of the Christian writers do not rest on anything written in the Bible but on a fundamental respect for human life. War should never be for the sake of killing people but instead with a goal of saving as many lives as possible by preventing or ending harm (Guthrie & Quinlan, 2007:5-6). Christian thinkers recognized that war is an unavoidable fact in human affairs while at the same time focusing on the moral task of defining why and under what limiting conditions war should be looked at as tolerable – which brings us back to the top of this blogpost and the never ending debate on when and why if ever the use of force should be considered (Guthrie & Quinlan, 2007:6-7).

This debate can usefully be translated into the ongoing debate between the two strands in the English School – the pluralists and the solidarists, about humanitarian intervention, which exposes the conflict between justice and order in the international society. Pluralists see humanitarian intervention as a violation of the fundamental rules of sovereignty, non-use of force and non-intervention. They focus on how these rules provide for a stable international order among states with different conceptions of justice. For pluralists states and not individuals are the principal bearers of right in international law and it is seen as being very unlikely that states should develop agreement beyond a minimum ethic of coexistence to prevent any destabilization of the existing order (Wheeler, 2000:11). This view is challenged by the solidarists. They look to strengthen the legitimacy of the international society by a further commitment to justice. This conception recognizes that individuals have rights in international law, and the defining character of the solidarist international society is that states do not just have a moral responsibility to protect their own citizens but also be protectors of human rights everywhere (Wheeler, 2000:11-12). With the changing conditions for war in our time and the partly shift away from war between two sovereign states to a new type of war between “an international society” or a coalition of states and a sovereign state or non-state actors violating human rights this debate is more relevant than ever.

Because, when should states declare war on other states? And can we always be certain that warfare will have a positive and progressive outcome? Nicholas Wheeler, being an English School solidarist, sets out four threshold conditions for humanitarian intervention derived from the Just War tradition. First, there must be a just cause meaning a supreme humanitarian emergency, secondly, the use of force should always be a last resort to end the emergency, thirdly, the intervention must meet the requirements of proportionality meaning that the level of force employed do not exceed the harm that it is meant to prevent or stop, and finally, there must be a high probability that the intervention will create a positive humanitarian outcome (Wheeler, 2000:33-34).

The Just War tradition also sets out a range of criteria that should be satisfied if war is to be morally justified. These criteria are divided into two groups: The Right to Fight and How to Fight Right (Guthrie & Quinlan, 2007:11). The group “The Right to Fight” or often referred to as Jus ad Bellum concerns the morality of going to war and includes the criteria from where Nicholas Wheeler got his threshold conditions for humanitarian interventions. The six criteria constituting this group are: A Just Cause, A Proportionate Cause, Right Intention, Right Authority, Reasonable Prospect of Success and Last Resort (Guthrie & Quinlan, 2007:12-13).

All of these criteria can be discussed and like Wheeler acknowledges, none of the criteria resolve the problem of deciding whether a particular case satisfies the test. The criteria can only be used to establish the common reference within which argumentation and discussion on whether or not to go to war or whether or not to intervene can take place (Wheeler, 2000:33).  War is never pleasant and always leads to sorrow and loss. But this being said the Just War tradition at the same time recognizes that war might not always be the worst thing possible. Sometimes there may be responsibilities and duties so important to fulfill, events so necessary to end, that a supposition against killing and war cannot be absolute for all times and in all contexts (Guthrie & Quinlan, 2007:11).


By Nicklas Lehmann, Stine Svenninggaard and Mejdi Soltani.

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