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Yugoslavia: Just War Theory Applied To Kosovo Conflict

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Prague, 7 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- NATO's aerial bombing campaign of Yugoslavia this week passed the biblical timespan of 40 days and 40 nights, with no end in sight.

The early expectation has evaporated that military action would quickly cause Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to follow Western conditions for settlement of the Kosovo crisis. The unexpected duration of the bombing, the alliance's moves to commit ever-more firepower, and the humanitarian tragedy of the Kosovar refugees is causing an increasing number of people to ask -- is this the right path we are following?

As war has been a part of human affairs since the earliest times, philosophers have given much thought to the question of what constitutes a justified war. In Christian theology the issue arose as early as the 5th century, when the great thinker Saint Augustine drew up elements of a code for "just war". This was later elaborated, principally by Saint Thomas Aquinas and later by others up to our present century.

In general terms, the just war theory demands: that there must be sufficient and just reason for going to war; there must be legitimate authority to declare war; it must be waged by appropriate means; there must be prospects of success; and all other avenues must have been previously exhausted.

How does the Yugoslav conflict live up to these criteria? NATO's own chief spokesman, Jamie Shea, offered his view this week:

"Milosevic made it clear that he was interested in only one thing, and only one thing -- a military solution on his terms, and damn the consequences. So we took the decision to use force. I don't believe that under any criterion of a just war, we could be accused of not having exhausted all ways of trying to solve this diplomatically. If people therefore are killed as a result, as bad as this affects me personally, and everybody in the alliance, the responsibility is with Milosevic. He is therefore the person who has made it inevitable that force had to be used to stop force."

Few people deny that the plight of hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians -- forced from their homes by Serb forces -- sufficiently fulfils the first criteria, namely providing a reason for the war. Moral theologians however point out there are distinctions in using force. David Leal, lecturer in philosophy and moral theology at Britain's Oxford University:

"It might be that the means for achieving the goal would be such as to involve unacceptable civilian casualties, or perhaps so much damage to the country that normal civilian life could not be reestablished once the conflict was over. And that then would render the conduct of the war impossible because it would be out of proportion with the attempted solution. And at that stage even though the war might have justification, it could not be fought, because the proportion of good and evil would be unacceptable".

For NATO, the question of civilian casualties as a result of the air raids is a key issue. Its policy is to stick to military-related targets and to reduce civilian deaths ideally to zero. But accidents have happened, and will happen. Scenes of Serbian buses blown up with high death tolls affects public opinion around the world, and therefore eventually affects NATO's actions.

The related problem is to what extent the definition of military-related targets should also include dual-use civilian infrastructure. There is already some criticism of NATO in its choice of targets. Is the alliance willing to continue the air war until normal civilian life becomes impossible in Serbia?

The dilemma for NATO is that the more it limits its list of targets on moral grounds, the less effective it is likely to be in breaking the Serbian armed forces and their grip on Kosovo. And that in turn complicates another just war issue, namely that the attacks must have a prospect of success, of achieving the just purpose, or they could be considered useless violence.

Another key heading is authority for initiating the war. Originally, the moralists saw authority as vested in God's name, but our more secular times demand other criteria. Leal says:

"Who might have the authority? Well perhaps the United Nations might be regarded as the most obvious body to justify the intervention in such a situation. The United Nations to the best of my knowledge has not given any such go-ahead. NATO is the body that has made that decision, and whether NATO has that right or not, is one of the very significant questions which a just war theorist would have to face and ask a question about".

Just war theory demands that those waging war must have a clear concept of what they are aiming at. Here NATO appears on very firm ground. NATO leaders, particularly U.S. President Bill Clinton, have tirelessly reiterated the terms for an end to the bombing, including return of the Kosovars to their homes, and their protection by an international force with NATO at its core. The moral revulsion felt in the West for the ethnic cleansing is evident in a speech Clinton made this week:

"Kosovo is an affront to everything we stand for. Two months ago there were one point eight million ethnic Albanians living there. Now nearly one and a half million have been forced from their homes, their villages burned, their men often separated from their families and killed."

Another just war expert, Dietmar Meath, Professor of theology and ethics at Germany's Tuebingen University, looks to history to give guidepoints to present conduct. He recalls that in the late 1930s the world stood by as Nazi Germany dismembered Czechoslovakia. "Through its military restraint, you might call it, at that time the West let slip the moment at which it might have undertaken something against the armed power of the Nazis. That's a lesson one must note, but if one wanted to apply the same lesson to the Kosovo conflict, then one would need to have reacted much earlier than it did. I think the lesson deriving from the late 1930s for Kosovo is that one had to bring together a long time ago an international tribunal, and to have much earlier asked the question of how much national sovereignty can remain when genocide is taking place."

One thing is certain as this century draws to a close. The present conflict over Yugoslavia will stimulate new debates and bring new awarenesses to the still-evolving theory of what constitutes a just war.