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On the Just War Theory vis a vis Chemical Weapons: some Timely Moral Musings
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-09-02 09:53:10
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Lately on August 21, 20013 the world witnessed the macabre spectacle of the Syrian regime headed by Bashar al-Hassad gassing its own people with chemical weapons and then denying that it was the perpetrator of such an outrageous crime. The UN inspectors have concluded their investigation declaring that a crime was actually committed, that serin gas was actually used. That conclusion has prompted several Western powers (such as the US, the UK, France) to call such a crime an impermissible “moral obscenity” committed by a “thug and a murderer” who has already killed 110,000 of its people and displaced millions into Turkey and Jordan.

Admittedly it was not the 110,000 deaths of civilians in a civil war but the indiscriminate gassing of women and children which triggered the moral revulsion at the egregious violation of the universal prohibition of chemical weapons, internationally in place since after World War I to which even Syria is a signatory. President Barack Obama made a decision that such outrageous international violation of decent civilized behavior by Hassad merited a measured response so that it would not become a very dangerous precedent and an encouragement for tyrants and dictators around the world. He has not decided yet as to when to give the orders to do so since he wished to involve the people via their representatives in Congress.  There were initial supporting statements by the PM of the UK and the President of France and even from the Arab League in Cairo which declared that "The United Nations and the international community are called upon to assume their responsibilities in line with the UN Charter and international law by taking the necessary deterrent measures." France is in fact still aboard with its pledge of support.

Moreover, The Saudi foreign minister, addressing the Cairo meeting of the pan-Arab organization which is divided over the conflict in Syria, also called for action against the Assad regime with this statement: "Opposition to international action only encourages the regime to pursue its crimes," Prince Saud al-Faisal said. "It is time to ask the international community to assume its responsibilities and to take deterrent measures." And at the Vatican, Pope Francis called for the world to unite in a day of fasting and prayer for Syria on Saturday the 31st of August and said "God and history" would judge anyone using chemical weapons.

Obviously there was an initial international consensus (with the exception of Russia, China and Iran) that something momentous and outrageous in the annals of man’s humanity toward man had happened and needed to be attended to. Then a few days ago we were treated to the spectacle of the British Parliament or its House of Commons vote down the strategic military plans of its PM, something that had not been done for over two hundred years. Some commentators and journalists opined that the ghost of the Iraq war hung over the House, they were not going to fall into the same trap once again, or perhaps it was a bit more banal, the legislators had been called back from their dear summer vacations. Whatever the reason, this strange hesitancy on the part of a usually reliable ally is puzzling to say the least. If there is one thing that the Brits should have learned from the appeasement of Chamberlain before World War II, it is the ineluctable fact that when one appeases a bully it is most likely that he will double down on his gross violations and outrageous actions and that not to stop him right away means that one will have to fight him later on with a vastly greater loss of blood and treasure.

Be that as it may, what we have heard ad nauseam in the last few weeks from political pundits and media are scenarios galore encompassing the political, the economic, the legal and the strategic military options on how to deal with the flagrant use of chemical weapons. It is going on as we speak. It appears that economic, political, legal and military considerations of power struggles blind the modern intelligentsia to any considerations of moral imperatives. We have in fact heard precious little about the moral considerations that accrue to a just and justified war; considerations which go back to St. Augustine theory of a just war in the fifth century AD. Perhaps it is time to dust them off and review them.

Proportionality is an important concept in the judgment of a just war. While there are many versions of the theory of the just war since Augustine wrote its first draft, all of them agree that even limited belligerent action, such as the "surgical strikes" that the Obama administration is contemplating, must have a "just cause" -- that is, an aim that is not merely good or desirable but actually just. The main reason for the legal prohibitions of the use of chemical weapons is that even purely military uses of such weapons are more likely to be disproportionate in the harms they inflict on civilians than the use of conventional weapons. This is because weather conditions can cause even a precisely targeted chemical attack to harm or kill innocent bystanders a considerable distance from the target area. So the moral reason for the prohibitions is primarily to protect civilians from being harmed as a side effect of attacks on enemy forces, and the only additional reason to attack Syria that derives from the regime's use of chemical weapons is to deter future uses by Syria and others by enforcing the prohibitions.

Some contemporary just war theorists take that to mean that the aim of a just war must be to prevent or rectify wrongs for which those whom it is necessary to attack are responsible to a degree sufficient to make them morally liable to attack. When that is true, those who must be attacked to prevent or rectify the relevant wrongs have forfeited their right not to be attacked. That is why it can be just to attack them in defense of the rights of others.

According to this understanding, there is a just cause for military action against Syria. It is not, as many have suggested, to merely "punish" Bashar al-Assad, nor to preserve President Obama's credibility given his earlier threat that to use chemical weapons would be to cross a "red line." It consists, instead, of several aims. The principal two are summed up in the administration's recent phrase: to "deter and degrade." The main aims, in other words, must be, so far as possible, to physically prevent further attacks against civilian areas and to deter those that cannot be prevented. Secondary aims include convincing the Syrian regime that it cannot win the war against its own people by violence and enforcing the legal prohibitions of the use of chemical weapons.

Just war theory, however, imposes severe constraints on the resort to military force other than the requirement of just cause. There are also conditions of necessity and proportionality that must be satisfied. At this point, with over 110,000 people having already been killed and a far greater number forced to become refugees, a strong case can in fact be made that the regime is morally blind and deaf and is not susceptible to other pressures in what it rightly perceives as a struggle for its survival.

The proportionality constraint is also potentially satisfiable, though it is important to understand why and how. One might think that the regime's having already killed the great majority of the 110,000 dead guarantees the military action would be proportionate. But proportionality is not a relation between harms inflicted in the past and harms that might be inflicted by the resort to military force. Two wrong, no matter how proportional, never make a right; they are still two wrongs. Rather, it is a relation between the harm, particularly to innocent bystanders, that would be caused by the use of force and the wrongful harm that the use of force would prevent. If strikes against Syria are to be proportionate, they must be effective in preventing or deterring harm to Syrian civilians (for example, by destroying delivery systems for chemical attacks) and must be directed at targets far from civilian areas. If military strikes in Syria are to be justified morally, they must save rather than take the lives of civilians.

All the above having been said there is a further important consideration which is implied in the statement of Pope Francis above, and it is this: is violence the only way to oppose “moral obscenities”? Which is to say, is fighting fire with fire, violence with violence proportionally, the only option? Surely indifference, lack of solidarity and compassion and sheer lack of courage if not outright cowardice is no desirable option, but should not the non violent methods of a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King be also considered? Martin Luther King would have been the first one to condemn and protest the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent civilians, but would he have also counseled a just and justifiable war? One wonders. We have honored Martin Luther King a few days ago by celebrating with words the march on Washington of fifty years ago. Ought we not also honor him in deeds by at least considering his theory of non-violent resistance? Food for thought.

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