Friday 30. July 2021

A just war against terrorism?

Is the use of military force against IS legitimate? Gerhard Beestermöller, Professor of Theological Ethics at the Luxembourg School of Religion and Society, seeks answers from the perspective of Catholic peace ethics.

“France is at war” – these are the words of French President François Hollande before the two houses of the Versailles parliament three days after the Paris attacks on 13 November 2015. Strong words. In times of war, the strict peacetime limitations on the use of force by the state no longer apply; on the contrary, the state is able to make massive intrusions into freedom and property, and direct military force against its opponents.


Between combating crime and war

But in this case is it really correct to talk about war? Not in the sense in which it was known in the 20th century: large-scale armies, conscription of whole male populations fit for military service, the total destruction of certain regions, millions dead. But on the other hand, this is not a case of merely combating crime. Terrorist attacks are aimed at undermining the continued existence of a community. They are massive violent attacks carried out on an ongoing basis. The extent of the damage caused extends far beyond criminal damage.


And this is the problem: terrorism does not fit the mould of either combating crime or war. The achievements of modern statesmanship in shifting the keeping of the peace to external borders and applying law within the territory are being put under pressure. The traditional scheme of things is barely sufficient.


This could be the time to go back to fundamental ethical principles and develop new categories. The paradigm applicable to the legitimate use of force is generally that of a “just war”. But has this not also become obsolete? There is little reflection on the fact that it originates from times when there was still no difference between “international” and “internal” action, because in the ancient and medieval times there were no states. Thus the implementation of a court judgement, which we would designate a police measure, would have been deemed “just war” in the Middle Ages. The concept of “just war” has therefore been developed in line with that of the state. Can the two be separated again? This task has not been fully grasped.


Criteria of the “just war”

Let us assume that France is at war, and evaluate this action in the light of the criteria of a “just war”. Given that the threat emanating from IS cannot be averted without military force, the following questions should be asked at the very least.

“Just war” is entirely aimed at achieving an objective, that is peace based on the rule of law. What is the actual objective to be achieved? The prevention of future attacks in Europe? An end to the rule of IS over the areas it has conquered? What will take its place? Assad? Shiite-dominated Baghdad? The Kurds? From a perspective of the establishment of the rule of law, which aim can be deemed legitimate?


What are the “just grounds” and the “legitimate authority”? There is no UN mandate for military sanctions. The proceedings rest on France’s right to self-defence. The legitimacy of the application of military force which, without a UN mandate, is ultimately unauthorised, is very questionable from a perspective of the rule of law.


What is the “intention”? Revenge? To prove France’s own strength? Justified anger, but anger that still has its sights on winning over the perpetrators as far as possible to a life under the rule of law?


Are the means capable of achieving success? Does the refusal to send in ground troops not reveal the largely self-referential significance of the use of the term war? If France really were at war, then it would certainly send in ground troops.


Protection of civilians? If the terrorists were in possession of a city in Europe, would we then prefer to subject our fellow countrymen to death and destruction than put our soldiers at risk? If it is a matter of the protection of innocent people, the nation should not count.


Even if Hollande is able to raise the fight against terrorism to the level of martial law, the actions of the West remain questionable. The actual task triggered by terrorism involves developing our rules and legitimisation criteria further. Maybe the idea that terrorists not only pose a threat to individual states but to the whole of humanity will take us a step further in this direction.


Gerhard Beestermöller,

Professor of Theological Ethics at the Luxembourg School of Religion and Society


Translated from the original text in German

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