Defining a Just War | The Nation


Defining a Just War

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In building a global coalition for cooperative action, especially with respect to law enforcement in countries where Al Qaeda operates, the US government has struck a number of Faustian bargains. It may be necessary to enter into arrangements with governments that are themselves responsible for terrorist policies and brutal repression, such as Russia in Chechnya and India in Kashmir. But the cost of doing so is to weaken claims that a common antiterrorist front is the foundation of this alliance. For some governments the war against apocalyptic terrorism is an opportunity to proceed with their own repressive policies free from censure and interference. The US government should weigh the cost of writing blank checks against the importance of distinguishing its means and ends from the megaterrorist ethos that animated the September 11 attacks. There are some difficult choices ahead, including the extent to which Afghan opposition forces, particularly the Northern Alliance, should be supported in view of their own dubious human rights record.

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Richard Falk
Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law and practice at Princeton University, is the United Nations Human...

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How, then, should legitimacy be pursued in the current context? The first set of requirements is essentially political: to disclose goals that seem reasonably connected with the attack and with the threat posed by those who planned, funded and carried it out. In this regard, the destruction of both the Taliban regime and the Al Qaeda network, including the apprehension and prosecution of Osama bin Laden and any associates connected with this and past terrorist crimes, are appropriate goals. In each instance, further specification is necessary. With respect to the Taliban, its relation to Al Qaeda is established and intimate enough to attribute primary responsibility, and the case is strengthened to the degree that its governing policies are so oppressive as to give the international community the strongest possible grounds for humanitarian intervention. We must make a distinction between those individuals and entities that have been actively engaged in the perpetration of the visionary program of international, apocalyptic terrorism uniquely Al Qaeda's and those who have used funds or training to advance more traditional goals relating to grievances associated with the governance of a particular country and have limited their targets largely to the authorities in their countries, like the ETA in Spain and the IRA in Ireland and Britain.

Legitimacy with respect to the use of force in international settings derives from the mutually reinforcing traditions of the "just war" doctrine, international law and the ideas of restraint embedded in the great religions of the world. The essential norms are rather abstract in character, and lend themselves to debate and diverse interpretation. The most important ideas are:

§ the principle of discrimination: force must be directed at a military target, with damage to civilians and civilian society being incidental;

§ the principle of proportionality: force must not be greater than that needed to achieve an acceptable military result and must not be greater than the provoking cause;

§ the principle of humanity: force must not be directed even against enemy personnel if they are subject to capture, wounded or under control (as with prisoners of war);

§ the principle of necessity: force should be used only if nonviolent means to achieve military goals are unavailable.

These abstract guidelines for the use of force do not give much operational direction. In each situation we must ask: Do the claims to use force seem reasonable in terms of the ends being pursued, including the obligation to confine civilian damage as much as possible? Such assessments depend on interpretation, but they allow for debate and justification, and clear instances of violative behavior could be quickly identified. The justice of the cause and of the limited ends will be negated by the injustice of improper means and excessive ends. Only the vigilance of an active citizenry, alert to this delicate balance, has much hope of helping this new war to end in a true victory.

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