The Just War Theory and the International Order

How many times do we listen to, or use our selves, the word ‘just’ when dealing with wars, military interventions, killings, and so on? The most recent and emblematic case is represented by the Syrian war and the attacks against the Assad’s facilities and bases after the employment of chemical weapons against the rebels in the eastern Ghouta. Always, when the binomial good and evil is involved, we feel legitimate to consider certain actions as just even if they bring about destruction and death. The punishment itself brings the idea of justness, we are open to accept it if it is directed against someone generally considered evil. However, the centrality of the idea of justice in our debates and in the framework of the governmental decisions is an exception in the history of the last five centuries. To go back to an age in which the concept of justice was paramount we have to recall the middle ages when the system of actors in the international arena (if it could be called so) was totally different and with it also the most accepted principles. From the Roman Empire and the Christian’s justifications of war during the Middle Ages, to the Holy Wars (the Christian Crusade, the Muslim Jihad and the Jewish Milchemet Mitzvah), to the Wars of Religion occurred between the XVI° and XVII° century, justice had a primary role in shaping leaders and authorities’ decisions. 

The period between these two ages (some scholars think that we are entering a new one) is represented by the four centuries covering the period since the aftermath of the peace of Westphalia to the outbreak of the second world war. The birth of the modern international system posed an end to the prominence of religion as a contested element and helped to overcome this tradition by bringing fundamental changes in the politico-juridical sphere as well as in its organizational principle and normative instrument: if in the past it was centered on the divine law and the religious authority, since then it gradually shifted on the international law and therefore on the sovereign and reciprocal states.During such time wars were mainly fought in the ‘interest’ of the political unit rather than justice or religion. The clearest example is given by the so frequently recalled and most known quotation of Carl Clausewitz about war as the continuation of politics with other means. This statement was extremely influenced by the experience of Napoleon and it was taken as a maxim by his successors. The idea was to consider war as an instrument of politics to achieve political results, therefore mirroring the political interest. Today we can say that armies and war are not employed in the same way and in order to reach the same goals. Since the second world war but in particular in the last decades, since the end of the cold war and the transition occurred from the bipolar system to the unipolar moment, we witnessed the rediscovery of the narrative of the just war applied to the contemporary international military interventions. The importance of the recent rediscovery of this tradition is directly linked to the greater transformation occurring in the institution of war which is claimed to be at the dawn of a new era no more characterized by the conventional and symmetrical armed conflicts but rather by the Low Intensity Conflicts.[1]Within this new kind of violence the element of justice is likely to be more stressed and to get a higher importance than before: think for instance to the humanitarian intervention, the responsibility to protect and the counter-terror war, so frequently recalled in the actual debate. Given these conditions scholars but also governments and leaders are more and more recurring to the categories of the modern just war tradition in order to justify their interventions in key places around the world.[2]The idea of just war is strictly related to the issues of jus ad bellum, the right to wage war, and the jus in bello, the rights and principles to be respected during the hostilities. The first is a limitation to the situations in which states can declare war, and the second is a limitation to the conduct and means of the armies during armed conflicts. The modern Just War theory is underpinned by some, fundamental criteria that must be respected in a sort of cumulative way both in the case of jus ad bellum and jus in bello. 

First of all, it must be a Proper Authority to wage war, recognized in the institution of the State since the birth of the modern system; secondly, it must be a Just Cause, found in the self-defense only, also of a pre-emptive nature (a clear imminent threat of attack usually identified in the mobilization of armed forced), while war of aggression is clearly unjust; the intent of the war must be right (Right Intention) and therefore we must seek only the peace and status quo ruling before the war; again, the resort to the use of force must be the last possibility (Last Resort) and all the others tools – such as diplomacy – have to be previously exhausted; fifth, in the war there must be Proportionality of Ends: the overall good (the will to restore peace) shall exceed the total harm inflicted to the enemy, because even a war in self-defense involve its injury; and finally, the Reasonable prospect of Success is a fundamental element to be taken into account when deciding to wage a Just War because starting a war impossible to be won would bring with itself unnecessary and avoidable civilian and military casualties. On the other side of the coin, Proportionality of Means and Distinction are the two principles linked to the jus in bello. The former imposing the use of means and conducts of war which avoid inflicting unnecessary suffering to the enemy and the latter declaring the fundamental principle to target only combatants during the hostilities. Albeit these principles are generally accepted by the majority of scholars, in the recent history has opened a debate about the inclusion of the Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect among the principles of jus ad bellum and more precisely, just cause, in order to justify the military intervention against regimes not willing or unable to avoid, or responsible of perpetrating, atrocities against the civilian population.It’s here, between the ideal of justice and the will to intervene, that arises a problem of coexistence and hierarchy between two elements: the stability of the international order and the questions of justice around the globe.

 It is true that to protect human rights and the safety of populations should represent a key principle and task of the international community. International law, human rights law and international bodies such as the European Union and the United Nations are born not only to ban the war as an instrument of politics between countries but also to protect people against violence coming from their own representatives. However, the problem here is to verify whether such interventions should be considered of primary importance among the international community, in particular over the stability of the international order. To address this issue, it will be taken in particular the opinion of one scholar, Hedley Bull, that expressed on this particular relationship in his work of 1977, “the Anarchical Society”.

[1] Van Creveld, M., “The Transformation of War. The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz.”, The Free Press, New York, 1991.

[2]Crawford, N.C., “Just War Theory and the US Counterterror War”,Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Mar., 2003), pp. 5-25, American Political Science Association, Cambridge University Press.

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  • L'Autore

    Marcello Alberizzi

    Nasco a Milano nel 1995, conseguo la maturità scientifica e mi laureo in Scienze Internazionali e Istituzioni Europee nel 2017. Attualmente sono studente magistrale in International Politics and Regional Dynamics all'Università degli Studi di Milano. La mia seconda passione è l'analisi dei mercati finanziari e dell'economia globale. La mia qualità migliore? Imparare da chi mi sta di fronte. Il mio obiettivo nella vita? Darle un senso. Il mio motto? "Prendete la vita con leggerezza. Che leggerezza non è superficialità, ma planare sulle cose dall'alto, non avere macigni sul cuore. [...] La leggerezza per me si associa con la precisione e la determinazione, non con la vaghezza e l'abbandono al caso." - Italo Calvino.


Sapevi che? Pace, giustizia e istituzioni solide


Geopolitica Just War International Order

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