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What Is War Ethics?

  • War ethics are certain norms to which fighting armies shall adhere to despite all their efforts, tactics and strategies working to weaken the enemy. For example an army tries to cause maximum casualties on enemy property and forces but do not to harm civilian population, prisoners of war etc.

War is bad

  • The Ethics of War starts by assuming that war is a bad thing, and should be avoided if possible, but it recognises that there can be situations when war may be the lesser evil of several bad choices.
  • War is a bad thing because it involves deliberately killing or injuring people, and this is a fundamental wrong – an abuse of the victims’ human rights.

War Ethics

  • The purpose of war ethics is to help decide what is right or wrong, both for individuals and countries, and to contribute to debates on public policy, and ultimately to government and individual action.
  • War ethics also leads to the creation of formal codes of war (e.g. the Hague and Geneva conventions), the drafting and implementation of rules of engagement for soldiers, and in the punishment of soldiers and others for war crimes.

Background | WAR ETHICS | Ethics 

  • The discussion of the ethics of war goes back to the Greeks and Romans, although neither civilisation behaved particularly well in war.
  • In the Christian tradition war ethics were developed by St Augustine, and later by St Thomas Aquinas and others.
  • Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), a Dutch philosopher and author of De Jure Belli Ac Pacis (The Rights of War and Peace), wrote down the conditions for a just war that are accepted today.

International Rules And Conventions Of War Ethics

  • 1439
    • In 1439, Charles VII of Orleans laid down a law that said that officers would be held responsible for ‘the abuses, ills and offences’ committed by the men they commanded. If an officer didn’t take action promptly, or allowed an offender to escape punishment, then the officer would be punished as if they were the original offender.
  • 1815
    • The Congress of Vienna ruled in the case of Napoleon that it was a crime to go to war in breach of a treaty.
  • 1863
    • The Lieber Code was an early American code of conduct for armies, implemented by President Lincoln during the Civil War.
  • 1864
    • The first Geneva Convention protects the sick and wounded by giving protection to medical facilities and their staff and any civilians helping the wounded. The convention also recognised the Red Cross as a neutral medical group. 10 countries signed the Convention at first, (the UK signed in 1865, and the USA in 1882).
  • 1865
    • Captain Henry Wirz, commander of a Confederate prison camp was tried and executed for ‘conspiracy to destroy prisoners’ lives in violation of the laws and customs of war’ and ‘murder in violation of the laws and customs of war’.
    • This trial confirmed the principles of the Lieber Code and established the consequences of giving illegal orders.
  • 1874
    • The Brussels Protocol laid down that war should not ‘inflict unnecessary suffering’ upon an enemy.
  • 1880
    • The ‘Manual on the Laws of War on Land’ is drafted in England.
  • 1899 – 1907
    • The Hague Conferences create ‘The Convention on Laws and Customs of War’ – based on the manual referred to above.
  • 1906
    • Second Geneva Convention gives protection to wounded combatants at sea, and to victims of shipwreck.
  • 1919
    • The ‘Commission on the Responsibility of the Authors of the War and on the Enforcement of Penalties’ lays down a clear doctrine of criminal responsiblity for war crimes.
    • all persons belonging to enemy countries, however high their position may have been, without distinction of rank, including Chiefs of Staff, who have been guilty of offenses against the laws and customs of war or the laws of humanity, are liable to criminal prosecution.
  • Commission on the Responsibility of the Authors of the War and on the Enforcement of Penalties, 1919
  • 1925
    • Geneva Gas Protocol bans the use of poison gas and biological warfare.
  • 1929
    • Third Geneva Convention lays down rules to protect prisoners of war.
  • 1946
    • The Nuremberg tribunal tries Nazi war criminals on the basis that the Hague Convention of 1907 is customary international law.
  • 1948
    • The United Nations General Assembly adopts the ‘Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide’.
  • 1949
    • Fourth Geneva Convention brings together the elements of the first three Geneva Conventions and adds rules to protect civilians during war.
  • 1993
    • Establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, with jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and violations of the laws or customs of war committed in the territory of the former Yugoslavia since 1991.
  • 1997
    • Two protocols to the Geneva Convention give protection to guerrillas in civil wars or wars of national liberation.
  • 1998
    • An international conference adopts the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, opening the way to the establishment of an International Criminal Court.

Just War Theory | WAR ETHICS | Ethics 

  • Just War theory considers the reasons for going to war (Jus ad bellum) and the conduct of war (Jus in bello). This distinction is important.
  • A war might be ethical but the means unethical, for instance, using landmines, torture, chemicals and current debate is concerned with drones.
  • Just War theory sets out principles for a war to be ethical. The war must be:
    • Waged by a legitimate authority (usually interpreted as states)
    • In a just cause
    • Waged with right intention
    • Have a strong probability of success
    • Be a last resort
    • Be proportional

Purpose Of Just War Theory

  • The aim of Just War Theory is to provide a guide to the right way for states to act in potential conflict situations. It only applies to states, and not to individuals (although an individual can use the theory to help them decide whether it is morally right to take part in a particular war).
  • Just War Theory provides a useful framework for individuals and political groups to use for their discussions of possible wars.
  • The theory is not intended to justify wars but to prevent them, by showing that going to war except in certain limited circumstances is wrong, and thus motivate states to find other ways of resolving conflicts.

What Is A ‘Just Cause’? | WAR ETHICS | Ethics 

  • A war is only just if it is fought for a reason that is justified, and that carries sufficient moral weight. The country that wishes to use military force must demonstrate that there is a just cause to do so.
  • The main just cause is to put right a wrong. Sometimes a war fought to prevent a wrong from happening may be considered a just war.
  • In modern times wars to defend the innocent are increasingly regarded as just (which fits with the idea in some religious literature that it is better to defend an innocent than to defend oneself).

How should a Just War be fought?

  • A war that starts as a Just War may stop being a Just War if the means used to wage it are inappropriate.
  • Innocent people and non-combatants should not be harmed.
  • Only appropriate force should be used.
  • This applies to both the sort of force, and how much force is used.
  • Internationally agreed conventions regulating war must be obeyed.

Against the Theory of the Just War

  • Some people argue that the Just War doctrine is inherently immoral, while others suggest that there is no place for ethics in war.
  • Still others argue that the doctrine doesn’t apply in the conditions of modern conflicts.
  • Here are some of the arguments that have been put forward:
    • All war is unjust and has no place in any ethical theory
    • Morality must always oppose deliberate violence
    • Just war ideas tend to make violence ok, rather than restrain it
    • War so disrupts the normal rules of society that morality goes out of the window.
    • The just war theory is unrealistic and pointless
    • In a conflict “the strong do what they will, and the weak do what they must”
    • The decision to wage war is governed by realism and relative strength, not ethics
    • Morality thus has no use in war
    • If god ‘requires us to make war’ it would be wrong to disobey him, regardless of the requirements of the just war theory
    • In the bible god is frequently on the side of those waging wars that don’t conform to just war theory
    • The overriding aim of war should be to achieve victory as quickly and cheaply as possible
    • If the cause is just, then no restrictions should be placed on achieving it
    • The rules of conduct of war are mere camouflage because they are always over-ruled by ‘military necessity’
    • The existence of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction requires a different approach to the problem
    • These weapons can only be used for unrestricted war and so the condition of proportionality can’t be met if they are used
    • Using these weapons guarantees civilian casualties, and thus breaks a basic rule of the conduct of war
    • Since these weapons can’t be uninvented they render just war theory pointless
    • In recent times it has become possible to target such weapons quite precisely, so the problems above only apply to indiscriminate versions of such weapons
    • The ethics of weapons of mass destruction are a different topic
    • Terrorists are inherently uninterested in morality, so following any ethical theory of war handicaps those whom terrorists attack – thus a different approach is needed




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