Thought for the Day - Canon Dr Alan Billings

During my lifetime something remarkable has happened in the way we talk about conflict. Whether we are politicians, generals, journalists, or the man or woman in the street, our starting point now is those just war criteria first formulated by a Christian theologian in the fifth century. We use them to scrutinise both the decision to go to war and the means of waging it. Many have been incorporated into international conventions and law. It wasn’t always like this. It wasn’t how we thought in the Second World War when civilians were deliberately targetted in Dresden and Hiroshima: that breached a just war principle of discriminating between combatant and non-combatant.

But how helpful are these criteria for the type of action we are currently involved in Libya? For this is unlike the conflicts just war thinking has traditionally been concerned with. In the past, countries largely fought in their own interests. Now, we are increasingly under moral pressure to intervene in someone else’s - for humanitarian reasons - in Libya, to stop the regime massacring its own citizens. We need to develop, therefore, a theory of just intervention, based on just war principles, but taking account of these new realities. Recent conflicts are forcing such a development, but not quickly enough.

What seems to be emerging is this. The starting-point for a justified humanitarian intervention is a situation that profoundly shocks the world’s moral conscience. Colonel Qaddafi’s threat to proceed through Benghazi, house by house, killing those who opposed him was such a situation.

But then we stumble. We stumble over the question of authority. If the United Nations remains silent must the nations stand by wringing their hands as massacres unfold? We stumble over the terms of resolutions. But if a resolution stipulates a form of action that makes success less likely, should there be an intervention at all? After all, one principle of just war states that no military action should be embarked upon if the outcome is too uncertain. Yet a successful outcome in Libya seems impossible without regime change – as the Prime Minister and the French and American Presidents insisted last week – and that formed no part of the UN resolution.

As things stand, then, politicians are struggling to bring together a form of action that is both effective and morally justifiable with what international law allows. While they struggle, an unintended consequence of current action may be to prolong conflict and multiply innocent deaths – the prevention of which was the justification for intervention in the first place. The more casualties, the more the moral justification drains away.

What Libya reveals is the urgent need for new thinking, using a just war approach, to articulate clear principles for humanitarian interventions. Otherwise we run the risk of just interventions collapsing into unjust wars.

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