Endemic violence, the hallmark of the last hundred years, shows no sign of abating. The death toll resulting from war in the 20th century is 187 million and probably higher. The number of armed conflicts in the world has risen steadily since 1946 and now stands at 50 or more in any one year. In each case ‘just war’ rhetoric has been invoked to defend the indefensible. It is time to shift our thinking and public discourse from ‘just war’ to ‘just peace’.
Questions regarding the morality of war can be traced back to classical antiquity and across the histories of the main civilisations. Just war theory, as it came to be known in the Western tradition, has its origins in Greek and Roman thought, but it is only in the Christian era that it received its distinctive formulation.
In a decisive shift from the pacifist leanings of the early Church, Augustine argued that war could be waged but only under the right authority and for a just purpose. Several centuries later Thomas Aquinas greatly refined the concept, arguing that for war to be just, it must satisfy three tests. It must be waged under the authority of the ruler whose responsibility it is to protect the state and its people; it must be waged against an opponent intent on aggression and then only as a last resort; and the underlying motive must be to achieve good or prevent evil.
These conditions paved the way for what later came to be known jus ad bellum (the conditions for a just cause) and jus in bello (the conditions for the just conduct of war). In the early 17th century Hugo Grotius, widely regarded as the father of modern international law, stripped away the theological trappings of just war and ground it firmly in natural law.
Grotius identified several causes of war as ‘just’: defence, recovery of property, punishment, and obtaining of what is owed to us. He went on to establish rules to limit warfighting to what is necessary to achieve victory. The humanitarian constraints Grotius placed on the use of force eventually paved the way for international humanitarian and criminal law, including the Geneva Conventions, the Genocide Convention and the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court.
Welcome as they are, this body of law and the principles on which it is based have had limited success in curbing the frequency or brutality of war. Just war notions have been overwhelmed by the inexorable march of military technology, the advent of the atomic age, the birth of military-industrial complexes, the blurring of national boundaries, and the internationalisation of armed conflict.
The fundamental weakness of just war thinking now stands exposed. According to just war theory only a legitimate authority can decide to use force. But where does legitimacy lie in the complex conflicts of the modern era?
What if a national authority asserts that it is waging a just war, as the United States did when it invaded Iraq in 2003, even though the UN Security Council argued otherwise? Or, as Russia did when it annexed Crimea in February-March 2014?
In any case, force is as likely to be used within as across national boundaries. Could the former Apartheid regime in South Africa be said to exercise legitimate authority when it ordered its heavily armed police forces to shoot protesting black students? What of Australian governments and Aboriginal deaths in custody or the incarceration of refugees? Or Australia’s Operation Sovereign borders aimed at preventing asylum seekers from reaching its shores?
Nor is this just war’s only weakness. Preoccupied with the actual use of force, just war is virtually silent on the preparation for war, and the role of political, military and business elites that stand to gain from development, production and transfer of ever more lethal weapon systems. In other words, it ignores the pernicious effects of the massive investment in war making, and the glaring reality that arms kill simply by their very existence.
Just war has even less to say about the destruction of our natural environment and the plant and animal species that inhabit it. Yet, we now know that the human future and the planet’s future are inextricably linked.
Unsurprisingly, just war has proved a poor guide to prudent, let alone ethical, decision making. As often as not, official just war rhetoric has been little more than an exercise in hypocrisy, deception and cover-up.
In the context of our current predicament just peace offers a more promising approach to the future. Linking peace and justice is not a new idea. Physical violence, which we associate with the battlefield and other forms of organised violence, including torture, terrorist attacks, forcible transfer of communities and genocide, is invariably linked to social violence, which we associate with the slum, ghetto, and other forms of exploitation, discrimination, and repression.
The tentative efforts of the UN system to combine human rights and economic and social development with conflict prevention, peacekeeping, peacemaking and peacebuilding are an embryonic attempt to forge a just peace agenda.
There is however, a third and crucial element to just peace, namely care of the Earth. Water pollution, toxic dust, carbon emissions, and the likely catastrophic effects of a nuclear war on climate and natural habitats are a few examples of the detrimental impact of war and peacetime military activity.
The converse is equally true. Soil erosion, desertification, air and water pollution often lead to sudden and inevitably destabilising mass migrations, as we have already seen in Darfur and Syria, and are likely see in the South Pacific as Island nations face extreme weather events and rising sea levels.
Clearly, care of the Earth’s ecosystems must be made a key pillar of conflict prevention and post-conflict peacebuilding. But there is still more to a just peace agenda.
The key to a just and ecologically sustainable peace is inclusion. People, nature and importantly future generations are routinely excluded from decisions that adversely affect them. Corporate, political and security elites intent on maintaining their power and privilege, exclude other voices for fear of losing control of key decisions. They do this, indifferent to the harm such exclusion inevitably leaves in its train.
The shift to a just peace agenda offers a potent antidote to the dynamic of exclusion. It allows for an inclusive ethic which transcends the five maladies of our time: parochialism, populism, militarism, extremism and anthropocentrism. It places the focus as much on the citizen as on the policy maker. It empowers citizens and communities to make ethically informed judgments and engage directly with the defining issues of our time.
Of course, these are little more than abstract principles. The devil lies in application to specific contexts. For this we turn in Part 2 to Australia’s current travails and future possibilities.
Joseph Camilleri is Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University. He chairs the planning group of a year-long project Earth@Peace, of which the landmark Conference on 23-24 April 2019 in Melbourne will be the highlight. Details here