On Saturday evening I attended a seminar on “Just war”, which raised some interesting legal and moral questions I would like you to comment on.
Let me begin by stressing to any mischief makers out there that I fully support our pilots over Syria and Iraq, wish them safe return, and agree they should carry out the will of Parliament, government and their commanders. This debate is not about them. Parliament on behalf of the nation voted to approve military action, and was told such action is legal.
This debate is about us and about today’s wars as well as about past wars. In a democracy war is conducted in our name, because MPs have had the opportunity to debate and vote on it. We accept majority decisions. The seminar speakers explained that over the centuries it has usually been accepted that only a sovereign can wage a just war. This used to be a King, and is now an internationally recognised government with whatever legal processes that government needs under its own constitution to enable it to kill the citizens of another country. It has also long been acknowledged that the international community wishes to place restrictions on how a sovereign may conduct war. There is a substantial body of international law and custom surrounding the treatment of prisoners, the killing of civilians and the types of munitions that can be used. In recent arguments the question of chemical weapons became an important consideration, and the indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations can be an issue. After the first world war there was a wish to restrict chemical weapons given the heavy use in that dreadful conflict. After the second world war when both sides used heavy area bombing of cities there was a wish to place limits on this in future conflicts. All in the west agree, for example, that hospitals and schools should not be targets.
Some of today’s wars raise the issue of how do you respond to violence by criminal gangs or “armies” that do not have recognition as sovereign countries with the right in certain ways and certain circumstances to wage war. Some say they should not be dignified with the title of states nor their actions called wars. They are violent criminals seeking to disrupt or overturn established states. Others say that when de facto violent people gain control of territories it is right as Mr Hollande does to say we wage war against them.
One of the big questions raised in the seminar was what legal and moral responsibility rests on the shoulders of the individual soldier or officer asked to carry out acts of violence against others. Governments and military commands like to stress the need for discipline. Normally the soldier or officer does not need to ask if it is right to kill the enemy, because they have been given clear orders by their superiors. The soldier would like to rely on the fact that the government and Generals commanding his army have taken proper legal advice, know what they are doing, and are issuing legal and sensible commands. Without discipline an army cannot function. In a battle you cannot suddenly ask or expect the soldiers at risk to hold a legal seminar as to how they should respond to danger.
However, under international law there are occasions when a junior officer or soldier does have to question a command or refuse to carry it out. If, for example, in a battle a senior officer orders soldiers to kill disarmed prisoners who have surrendered under the proper procedures, or if a commander wanted to use prohibited munitions he had captured, those asked to do this need to be aware that these might well not be legal commands. Junior officers and soldiers need to obey but they are not automata and they are not protected in all cases by the defence that they were only carrying out orders. Military training has to include understanding the laws and rules of war and the limits placed on authorised violence.
In the current Iraqi/Syrian war the government has to ask what are legitimate targets as it defines the campaign. It appears that the Coalition is very careful in identifying legitimate targets that should reduce ISIL’s capacity to kill others, without wishing to kill civilians who live near by. To what extent is it right to destroy the economic capacity of the areas occupied by ISIL to cut off some of their money supply, given that many non combatants also live there? The targets can be chosen in advance and subject to senior scrutiny before sign off.