Helena Cobban Examines the Profound Impact of ‘Just War’ Theory

J. W. AssociateBlog, History of the West, Human rights, Humanitarian affairs, International law, Militarism, Role of Military, U.S. policy, United Nations

We are pleased to present an overview of this essay by Helena Cobban, which was published on Globalities. Globalities is a project of Just World Educational and its President, Ms. Cobban. To support this project, please give via this link. Learn more about Globalities here.

Helena Cobban’s latest essay, “War, Morality, Syria, Libya,” traces the historical origins of ‘Just War’ theory in order to highlight its profound influence on Western governance and put forward this ethical framework of armed conflict as a powerful tool for scrutinizing military intervention today.

Medallion of Emperor Constantine

The foundations of ‘Just War’ theory can be traced back to a pivotal moment in Western history.  In 313 CE, Emperor Constantine granted legal and protection to Christians, subsequently declaring it the official religion of the Roman Empire. As such, Christianity was catapulted from a persecuted faith to the religion of Empire.

Augustine of Hippo

Some hundred years later and in the wake of the sack of Rome, Bishop Augustine authored The City of God in which he codified the stipulations of ‘Just War’. His treatise resonated deeply with Christian thought and thus greatly influenced the governance of a world that for nearly 1500 years came increasingly under the control of “Christian” West European states. Augustine’s stipulations encompassed two key components: Jus ad bellum, on considerations involved in the decision to launch a war, and Jus in bello, on conduct in warfare. 

The principles of Jus in bello, which seek to prevent harm to civilians, include directives such as avoiding damage to hospitals and ambulances and providing humane treatment to surrendered forces. These ideals are deeply ingrained in the corpus of international humanitarian law, such as the Geneva Conventions and the Hague Conventions. Concepts like “war crimes,” “crimes against humanity,” and “genocide” form the cornerstone of prosecutions carried out by the International Criminal Court and inform the work of many human-rights organizations.

On the other hand, Jus ad bellum is not nearly as embedded in the Western framework of war and has not been included in international conventions or treaties since the 1945 Nuremberg Charter. Augustine’s encoded principles include four key tenets:

  • Military action is a last resort
  • Military action should only be waged by a “legitimate authority”
  • Military action should be aimed at re-establishing a just peace
  • The military action should have a reasonable chance of success

In international society, these principles are important considerations in initiating military action. Crucially, they reflect a deep understanding of war’s immense potential for causing or inflicting harm. The fourth principle, in particular, forces us to consider what successful military action constitutes. Where are people better off because of war?

Ms. Cobban employs the framework of Jus ad bellum to scrutinize the ruinous impact of the western coalition against Libya’s poor decision-making. In her analysis, she calls out the very same shortcomings prevalent in the US-led coalition’s involvement in Syria and underscores the pressing need for a reevaluation of such interventionist approaches, with ‘Just War’ theory as a guide.

For a comprehensive analysis of ‘Just War’ theory and its relevance in examining contemporary conflicts, we invite you to read the full essay below. For further insights into the prospects of de-escalation and resolution of the Syria, please see Ms. Cobban’s latest article for The Nation, “After 12 Years, Syria Joins the Arab League.”