Just Wars, The UN and Iraq
Following the military intervention by the USA and its allies in Afghanistan and Iraq and the relative inaction of the World in Rwanda and Darfur it seemed appropriate to take a step and look at the general principles governing when or whether armed intervention is permissible (or mandatory).
The Just War
Western civilisation has, over time, built up the concept of "the Just War". The principles of a "Just War" may be summarised as -
1) A just war can only be waged as a last resort. All non-violent options must be exhausted before the use of force can be justified.
2) A war is just only if it is waged by a legitimate authority. Even just causes cannot be served by actions taken by individuals or groups who do not constitute an authority sanctioned by whatever the society and outsiders to the society deem legitimate.
3) A just war can only be fought to redress a wrong suffered. For example, self-defense against an armed attack is always considered to be a just cause (although the justice of the cause is not sufficient--see point #4). Further, a just war can only be fought with "right" intentions: the only permissible objective of a just war is to redress the injury.
4) A war can only be just if it is fought with a reasonable chance of success. Deaths and injury incurred in a hopeless cause are not morally justifiable.
5) The ultimate goal of a just war is to re-establish peace. More specifically, the peace established after the war must be preferable to the peace that would have prevailed if the war had not been fought.
6) The violence used in the war must be proportional to the injury suffered. States are prohibited from using force not necessary to attain the limited objective of addressing the injury suffered.
7) The weapons used in war must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. Civilians are never permissible targets of war, and every effort must be taken to avoid killing civilians. The deaths of civilians are justified only if they are unavoidable victims of a deliberate attack on a military target.
or look here for a fuller discussion.
Of course we might choose to dispute some of these. (2) for example, would seem to suggest that it's not OK for a group of citizens to overthrow their legal government and that a government may do what it likes to its people. Most of us would dispute that and accept that there is a point at which a state loses authority and at which rebels opposing a state may gain it and that even in the absence of any organised opposition some human rights violations are so serious that it is not morally tenable to permit them to continue. But we need to think very carefully before acting on these grounds. A clear "moral case" could have been made for intervention in East Timor many years ago (Fretilin had the support of the population and the Indonesian government did not) but had the West done so would the peace (if there was peace) today be better than that achieved by peaceful engagement.
Justification by Outcome
A simpler approach is to say that a war is justified whenever the outcome after the war is better than it would have been without the war. But better for whom and who is to judge this. If every potential belligerent is permitted to judge whether their war will "make the world a better place" then we are simply returning to the law of the jungle. To make matters worse the actual outcome will not be known until it is too late. A belligerent may create an unmitigated disaster and then plead that it wasn't meant to end that way. A war which is "justified by outcome" will meet condition (5) of a just war but may fail all the others.
It is of course possible for evil actions to have good outcomes just as well-intentioned actions all too often cause harm. The eventual outcome in Iraq (and I offer no prediction) will be precisely the same regardless of whether the USA was motivated by a genuine concern for Iraqi human rights or whether it was a naked grab for Iraqi oil with a chance to make a fast 20b for Halliburton as a bonus.
Ideally there should be a supranational body that determines whether the use of force is justified in any circumstance. If we allow the USA to play judge and jury in its own case then we create a future environment where less friendly powers may do the same at our expense.
The United Nations
The United Nations Charter provides us with a quasi-legal framework for resolving disputes peacefully. In article 2 of the charter all member states give up the right to go to war except as mandated by the Security Council under articles 41-49 or for individual or collective self-defence (article 51).
Where action is mandated by the Security Council it is the responsibility of the Council to consider the Just War principles and all other matters. Article 51 is very restrictive and allows action only "if an armed attack occurs against a member state".
The greatest weakness of the United Nations is that the Security Council is subject to a veto by any permanent member. This means that the council is all too often paralysed because a single state holds out against the majority. But it is a weakness that is capable of reform. It just needs enough pressure to be exerted on the permanent members.
There is no doubt that the war in Afghanistan was a response to an "armed attack on a member state". It might be argued that the government of Afghanistan was not responsible for those attacks and that the response should have been directed specifically against Al Qaeda. It would, however, be militarily impractical to attack Al Qaeda without engaging Afghani forces.
More importantly, the action was duly authorised by the Security Council and so did not weaken the UN or the USA's alliances. We still don't know whether Afghanistan will end up better off than before, but we can hope. Al Qaeda has been weakened and denied a sanctuary but they are far from finished. There is still a good deal of unfinished business. The war in Iraq may well be one of the main reasons why that business is unfinished.
The ostensible justification for this war was preemptive self defence. This justification fails to satisfy Article 51 as no "armed attack on a member state" had occurred. It might satisfy the conditions for a "Just War" if there was a general and reasonable belief that Iraq had WMD and was about to use them (or give them to terrorists) and that the risk was too imminent to allow peaceful resolution. We now know that there were no WMD and I, at least, find it very hard to believe that either George Bush or Tony Blair really thought the risk so immediate that they could not risk pursuing a peaceful settlement.
The United Nations resolution 1441 calls on Iraq to comply with earlier resolutions on disarmament and cooperation with weapons inspectors but does NOT authorise the use of force by anyone in the event of non-compliance. The USA tried to get such a clause inserted and failed. The resolution simply requires the inspectors or anyone else to report any further breaches and for the council to reconvene when any such report is received. Further, the fact that Iraq had no WMD means they were in substantive compliance with the earlier resolutions. The breaches were procedural or documentation failures. Iraq's human rights record is irrelevant in this regard none of the resolutions had anything to do with human rights.
That leaves justification by outcome. It may yet be that Iraq will be better off without Saddam (it would after all be hard to be worse off). But this does not necessarily make the action wise or just. We may applaud the Magna Carta while deploring King John or the Bill of Rights while believing in the rightfulness of the Jacobite succession. Had the USA/UK alliance proclaimed "justification by outcome" at the beginning of their adventure they might have retained some of the moral high ground but they said they were going after WMD, and then that they were authorised by resolution 1441. To plead "Justification by Outcome" only when their previous reasons have been discredited has no credibility.
If we are to determine that the war in Iraq is justified by outcome we must look at all the outcomes. The final outcome in Iraq lies in the future but what of the "collateral damage" to the United Nations, to the Western Alliance and the Rule of Law between nations. These may in time be rebuilt and perhaps sooner than the chaos in Iraq is cleared but this will take more good will, humility and wisdom on all sides than has been evident so far. And who is to say that the damage done to the UN was not a partial cause of that body's inability to act in Darfur. If so the casualties of Bush and Blair's adventure stretch far beyond the borders of Iraq.