Can war be just?

A Just War Analysis of the Russo-Georgian War 2008

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2009 29 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Topic: Public International Law and Human Rights



In the following paper I will examine the question of whether war can be just through a case analysis of the conflict that took place between Russia and Georgia from the 7th - 16th of August 2008, also known as the Russo-Georgian War, the August War or simply the 2008 South Ossetia War.1

First, I will take a look at the theoretical foundations of the Just War tradition. Here I will distinguish between the two most well-known traditions, i.e. Jus ad Bellum (Just War) and Jus in Bello (Just Conduct) and give a critical account of their historical origins, criteria and implications of these theses2. I will find that there is a certain set of “rules” or “laws” which must be upheld in order for us to be able to talk of just war, but that these cannot always satisfyingly explain why war can be just.

This theoretical introduction will serve as a platform for the case analysis of the conflict, where I more specifically will examine whether the parties in the conflict at hand - i.e. Russia and Georgia, respectively - can be said to live up to the Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello criteria. My main findings here will be that both Russia and Georgia indeed were in violation of several of the just war criteria.

Justifying War

The question of whether war can be justified is not in any way provided with neither a simple nor easy answer. As much as one would not like to admit it, it is nevertheless only in an idealised world, in a More’s utopia, that we can be certain that no war nor armed conflict will ever happen. In the meantime, wars continue to be fought and justified with reference to certain moral and legal values that may or may not make them legitimate in the context of the Westphalian State System upon which the current international society is based.

Since the dawn of armed conflict wars have, with varying success, been justified by referring to such values as economic gains, religion, security, ideology, honour, survival, pre-emption and hence forth. What is common to all these justifications is that they all seek to justify the action of violating another state’s sovereignty or another people’s right not to be interfered with and that the justification of war can be targeted to the individual (the Leviathan who sends his army to war), a people (the mothers who send their sons to war), or the international society as a whole. There can be no doubt that war is inherently an evil to be avoided, but there may be times when other evils weigh so heavily that it is necessary (and justified) to turn to extreme measures in the use of force. What the just war tradition is based on, is a moral “cudos” that war is such an evil that it should be avoided at most (but not any) cost, and is in this sense rather restrictive in regards to warfare.

Historically, the Just War tradition has developed from war itself universally, but as we know it today, the origins can be said to be a synthesis of Greco-Roman and Christian values (Johnson 1987:45). Drawing on classic thinkers such as Aristotle and Cicero, who is seen by many as the founding father of the newer Just War tradition, is Augustine of Hippo, who’s theoretical successor was Thomas Aquinas. In the same breath should Hugo Grotius and Immanuel Kant be mentioned as significant contributors to the development of the tradition and theory. There are numerous opinions regarding which criteria should be included in a “complete” Just War theory, but for the parsimoniousness of the paper, I shall include those which are most widely accepted, being: 1) Just Cause 2) Right authority 3) Last resort 4) Proportionality and 5) Probability of success (Johnson 1987, Moller 2000, Orend 2006, Walzer 1977)3. I shall give a brief outline of the specific characteristics of the criteria in the following, and return to them in the case analysis.

Jus ad Bellum criteria

Just Cause is probably the most notable and intuitive of the just war criteria: Of course there must be a reason for going to war, even if the purpose lacks clear statement. At the one extreme of the spectrum of just causes, is the self-defence scenario, which is also the least controversial and included in the United Nations Charter: “Nothing [...] shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations” (UN 2008a:Art. 51) This situation is paralleled to the individual killing a villainous aggressor in self-defence, which in ethical theory is also the least controversial killing4. As we move from one end of the spectrum to the other, it becomes less transparent and, some would say, arbitrary what constitutes a just cause: the Zeitgeist of fighting wars to promote democracy may be more accepted in the international society in the current era than fighting wars to promote dictatorships, though neither should be mistaken for (absolute) just causes - there is thus a certain temporal character to the just cause criterion.

Right authority means, in the words of Augustine, that: “the power to declare and counsel war should be in the hands of those who hold the supreme authority” (Aquinas 1947). This authority would have been the church at the time of Augustine, but has since changed to the nation state and is now, in international law, The United Nations Security Council which has the power to “... determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken” (UN 2008a:art. 39). The criterion may be biased in this way that “the supreme authority” will always be self-referencing.

Moreover, war must be a last resort, which is clearly obvious when we take the axiom of just war theory in consideration, that war is an inherent evil to be avoided. An, as of yet, unsolved problem is how to define “last resort”: When have all other options been tried? The suggestion in the UN charter is that, “The parties to any dispute, [...] shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice” (UN Charter, art. 33,1). The cynic/pacifist would claim that there is always another way than war, but the implication of this may be that the price comes at a (too high) cost. If a minority is being targeted by a genocidal dictator and is rapidly being wiped out, when is the right time to intervene? When will it be too late? Traditionally, whether this criterion has been fulfilled or not, has been settled in the aftermath of a war, rather than ex ante.

Furthermore there is the question of Proportionality: in order for any war to be just, the calculated universal costs must not exceed the calculated universal benefits. What is problematic about this criterion, is that it is rather difficult to value such things as freedom, morality, sovereignty or even human lives5, and thus complicates (if not renders impossible) the construction of a cost-benefit analysis of a given conflict. Walzer proposes to “stick to a firm set of clear and universal rules to guide conduct”, which seems a healthy approach, but doesn’t o#er such an account himself (Walzer 1977:xv-xxi). Orend, on the other hand, proposes a negative dichotomisation, i.e. that there rather should be the absence of disproportionality in order for a war to be just, which might be a concept that is more intuitively correct (Orend 2006:60).


1 In structuring the paper, I have been inspired by Bjorn Moller’s just war analysis of the 1999 Kosovo War (Moller 2000), as it have proved a useful approach to applying just war theory on actual conflicts.

2 A further tradition should be mentioned here, namely the Jus Post Bellum, on how to behave in the aftermath of a conflict/war. The tradition can be traced back to Immanuel Kant (Kant 1995)

3 Several other criteria such as “right intention” and “formal declaration” (Orend 2006, Walzer 1977) could have been included, though these tend to overlap and are already answered by some of the other criteria.

4 See for example Thomson 1991 or Otsuka 1994


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University of Manchester – Political Theory
ethics international relations world politics global russia georgia georgian war conflict 2008 abkhazia south ossetia jus in bello jus ad bellum just war aquinas friedman glover rights lomborg kant medvedev medveded putin nato osce un united nations walzer




Title: Can war be just?