Just War Theory

Agha Sarwar

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King Narmer conquers the Nile delta
King Narmer conquers the Nile delta.  flickr credits Allan Ashby

Just war theory is a doctrine and a set of beliefs of military ethics originated from the Roman philosophy of Catholic origins. It is majorly studied by moral theologians and ethicists for creating a philosophical, religious and political criterion through and from a violent conflict or in other words war. Just war theory was first found in scriptures of an Indian epic “Mahabharata” in which conventions and rules of a fair and humane war between rivals of the same culture were introduced, but this theory was taken  as a theological and ethical study of conventions in warfare by Saint Augustine (354-430 AD), as he claimed that there should be several rules of engagement in war and it should comprise of some conventions respected by the both of warring parties, 900 years later, in the 13th century Thomas Aquinas, a Christian theologian under the influence of Saint Augustine defined several principles of going to war and how the to differentiate between a justified and an unjustified war.

These principles were common between rivals of similar culture but those rivals of different culture thought the other to be less than human and subjected the enemy to the extreme brutality of war and committed war crimes without hesitation hence principles and conventions of the just war theory preserve the sane and humane behavior of rivals within and after war and to minimize destruction and chaos that would have been caused during the war and its ultimate goal should be peace.

Just war theory is not a settled doctrine in which the theorists wanted some conventions and principles to be laid down for the warring parties to follow and obey as they would lead to a positive end at the termination of the war and to reduce the destruction and brutality caused by war. Just war theory was also used to distinguish between justified and unjustified war and the use of organized armed forces and their conduct during the war. Just war theorist emphasize that a war is the end of all human morals if it is done so for the gain of resource, land or loot but there is another side to war with a just cause, and an intention to eradicate further destruction by one of the party. War no matter what is damaging but if it is fought for the right purpose and to put an end to further destruction then it is justifiable but it should be fought with certain principles that would separate the party with a just cause from a party with unjust cause and greed for power or treasure, though the just war theory has now been replaced by international law an example of which is The Geneva convention.

The concept of just war can only be understood deeply by categorizing the theory into parts which are as follows:

  1. jus ad bellum(the right to go to war)
  2. jus in bello (right conduct within war)
  3. Jus post bellum (justice after a war)

“If we don’t end the war, war will end us.”

H.G wells (things to come, 1936)

Jus ad bellum convention (the right to go to war):

This criterion of just war theory deal with the right and reasons required or necessary to wage war against an enemy which is defiling laws of war and is violating human rights or rights of a state. The first and foremost principle of just war is having a just cause for the preservation of peace, freedom and protection of weak and innocent instead of engaging in a conflict for recapturing resource, punishing the guilty or for the gain of one nation, a nation can also retaliate by a just war if another nation has violated a treaty or caused an insult, physical injury, a trade embargo etc.  Secondly a just war should and can only be waged by a competent authority a just war may be launched by a political authority within a system or a state or states that are responsible for providing justice to the aggrieved people, dictatorships and pre-emptive strikes against a sovereign nation are opposed to this concept, it should be duly noted that if a competent authority if corrupt or a puppet regime of an invading party or is unjust then those who are to be aggrieved have right to repel them and a war declared by that authority which is unaccepted by its people is in its origin and basis an unjust war. The thirdly right intention is required for a just war, and which is done for justice or protection of the innocent and not for materialist gains and maintaining economies, a nation can also protect an aggrieved group by their intervention and giving them aid and refugee. It should be noted here that the probability of success in the war should be taken into keen consideration; the engagement in an armed conflict should not be done in case of overwhelming opposition in a futile attempt for a just cause is not considered a just cause it is just the slaughter of few men by many but it is also a fact the in history the weak stood against the strong and emerged victorious against all odds either because of advanced technology or by the motivation of a charismatic leader or by sheer luck.

Armed engagement should only be used as a last resort on the condition that all peaceful and viable alternatives have been used till exhaustion and armed engagement is the only viable option for a party for preservation freedom and innocent lives endangered by the rampaging party. Lastly the principle of macro-proportionality is to examine that the benefits of waging war are proportionate to the losses in a just war, for example, a nation has taken some land from its neighbor nation then the aggrieved should only respond enough to regain what they have lost and not further escalate the war or use overwhelming force or nuclear weaponry for a mere piece of land.

Wholly the principles offered by jus ad bellum are useful guidelines for reviewing the morality of going to war and war is a complicated issue and the principles are nonetheless a useful starting point for ethical examination and they remain a guide for nations to have means for a fair war with less destruction engulfing both warring parties.

Jus in bello (right conduct within war):

Once war has begun just war theory Jus in Bello dictates and guides the combatants through the principles of just conduct during the war. The conduct of a just war should be governed by the principle of distinction which requires the combatant to target only legitimate personnel and not to harm noncombatants through their course of war and civilian should not be harmed or civilian targets such as hospitals, refugee camps should not be targeted for combat, moreover the combatants who have surrendered or taken prisoners or are injured and pose no threat should not be harmed and are under the protection and they should not be forced to fight their side and should be treated humanely , the use of weaponry should be able to distinguish between civilians and military personnel and those weapons whose effects cannot be controlled are not permissible for example nuclear and biological warfare. Torture and methods of systematic killings and destruction and defilement are not allowed as that would be against the conduct of a just war.

Just war conduct shall be governed by the principle of proportionality. An attack cannot be launched on a military target is the civilian casualties are excessive as compared to the advantage to be gained and if it is a necessary target then care should be taken that combatants try and cause as less damage as possible. This principle is meant to limit excessive and unnecessary death and destruction.

“A “just war” – if there could be such a thing – would not require conscription. Volunteers would be plentiful”.

Ben Salmon, an Open Letter to President Wilson (October 14, 1919)

Jus post Bellum (justice after a war):

In recent years this category has gained fame that when after a war is over what are the justest principles that can be applied. It Concerns justice after a war, including peace treaties, reconstruction, war crimes trials, and war reparations.

A party may terminate a war if the violated rights are vindicated and the aggressors are willing to negotiate the terms of surrender which should include apology, reparations and trails for all the war crimes and rights that had been violated. Contrary to this if a party knows that the goals of war cannot be reached without the use of excessive force then it may terminate the war to avoid further motiveless destruction. A party may only terminate war if the above criteria is achieved, revenge is not permitted and trials for war crime should be held with the care that military and civilian personnel should be separate in the investigations of crimes, the truth should be shown and the culprits should be held accountable and not the whole nation. Truth and reconciliation are more effective at times then punishing war crimes. The terms of peace must be made by a legitimate authority to a legitimate authority.

Just war ethic in international law:

Since the treaty of Westphalia (1648), there has been a lot of effort in international law to develop laws of war and military codes of conduct. The first major action for rules of engagement for military forces was in the Geneva Conventions (1864–1949) and their protocols (1977) and various treaties, agreements, and rules limiting the means allowed in war. The moral debate often has centred on conduct during war issues especially the question of whether the use of nuclear weapons is ever just. The Hague Convention (1899 and 1907) and the Geneva Conventions attempted to pave conflict and the treatment of prisoners of war and civilians by imposing international standards. Three principles established by the rules to generally govern conduct during the war:

  1.  Targets should include only combatants and legitimate military and industrial areas.
  2.   Combatants should not use unjust methods or weapons (e.g. torture and genocide).
  3.   The force used should be proportionate to the end sought.

The international law is now much more simplified and restrictive in the military codes of conduct especially after the introduction of nuclear and biological weapons.

Just war theory emerged from just a medieval theory to today international law which has greatly reduced the atrocities of war and taught nations about morality and justice. In the past there was no check and balance in wars and every party committed war crimes and none were punished or corrected while the weak and aggrieved just suffered due to this theory nations regardless of their religion, culture or area have learned a lesson in morality and ethics of war and minimized the destruction and chaos which war engulfs. Today United Nations Organization’s court of justice prosecutes war criminals and provides whatever truth can be provided to the people and justice to the aggrieved. In the end, it can be noticed and taken into consideration that these rules and codes of conduct have come a long way from just moralities to laws but even after these advancements the room for further improvements still exist as these laws put into practice still have practical drawbacks.















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Agha Sarwar