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Caught by Surprise: Post-Cold War Geopolitics and the Relevance of the Just-War Tradition - Present Realities and Future Prospects: Concluding Reflections
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Caught by Surprise: Post-Cold War Geopolitics and the Relevance of the Just-War Tradition
Justice, Neighbor-Love, and the Just War Tradition
An Anatomy of Just-War Moral Reasoning
Present Realities and Future Prospects: Concluding Reflections
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Part 4: Present Realities and Future Prospects: Concluding Reflections


Humanitarian scholars Thomas G. Weiss and Cindy Collins identify no less than twenty-one international humanitarian and human rights accords or conventions that were established between 1946 and 1990. These conventions, which codify and institutionalize humanitarian concern, cover an extraordinarily wide range of scenarios, short of formal war, in which cases the most basic of human rights are being denied. These include (but are not limited to) political asylum, international refugee status and transfer of refugees, prevention and punishment of genocide, absence of political rights for women and children, war crimes, hostage-taking, torture and inhumane treatment of human beings, and obliteration of children’s dignity and rights.11 Surely, the irony here is impossible to miss. Precisely in our era, after the international community has committed itself to the codification and institutionalization of human rights, have the most widespread and tragic cases of human rights violations occurred. Why? Seemingly, the community of nations lacks the political and moral will to prevent what, at least in theory, should be non-controversial. For this reason, then, the failure of the world to prevent genocide in Rwanda in the mid-1990s as well as genocide, enslavement and displacement of peoples in Sudan since 1990 constitute two of the grave moral indictments of our time.12

To intervene or not to intervene? This should always be a difficult question. The use of force in other nations should always induce hesitation and anxiety. The just-war position, properly understood, is neither interventionist nor non-interventionist in its ideological precommitments. Rather, in assessing and judging cases of potential use of coercive force, it requires severe qualification of whether to intervene, why, where, and how.

Part of the West’s rationale for non-intervention is that few of the crises today technically qualify as external aggression; rather, more often than not they are internal collapses and catastrophes, characterized by rape, murder, ethnic cleansing, state or religious terrorism, political tyranny, and domestic brutality. If we assume that intervention should be a multi-national concern and effort wherever possible, which is my position, then we must ask: when should the world’s agents and powers – for example, the UN, the EU, NATO, the Pan American Alliance, the Organization of African Unity, and the United States – not merely register protest but intervene in crisis situations characterized by egregious human rights violations on a mass scale?

Without question, the presumption against intervention is strong and should not be easily overridden. Nevertheless, neither intervention nor non-intervention can be an absolute moral principle. It is well possible – indeed, it would seem increasingly commonplace in the post-Cold War era – that a government can do things to people within its borders  that are so evil and corrupt, so thoroughly wrong, that another nation – or coalition of nations – would be justified in intervening. The point at which that threshold is reached is the point at which the moral absurdity of a “doctrine” of non-intervention must be acknowledged, even when intervention (a) must be severely qualified and (b) is by nature susceptible to abuse.13 Classical just-war moral reasoning enjoins us to act justly, proportionately, and with the goal of establishing a better end when it is within our power to relieve outrageous suffering of innocent human beings.

In an important address in 1997 at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, South African Justice Richard Goldstone, who had previously served as chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, had this to say about our response to the unspeakable:

The one thing I have learned in my travels to the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda and in my own country is that where there have been egregious human rights violations that have been unaccounted for, where there has been no justice, where the victims have not received any acknowledgement, where they have been forgotten, where there’s been a national amnesia, the effect is a cancer in the society. It is the reason that explains, in my respectful opinion, spirals of violence that the world has seen in the former Yugoslavia for centuries and in Rwanda for decades, to use two examples…. So justice can make a contribution to….enduring peace.14

Goldstone’s comments highlight important truths about the character of justice: it exposes the truth of specific guilt; it records the truth of moral atrocity for the historical record: understands the necessity of moral retribution (over against revenge or retaliation) as a pedagogical tool for all concerned; and it publicly acknowledges the immeasurable loss of victims, who, as a terrified people, need justice.

Intervention, whether “military” or strictly “humanitarian” in nature, is a profoundly negative undertaking. Its purpose is to stop, retard or prevent policies and actions that constitute “crimes against humanity,” based on our shared humanity and neighbor-love. In the present world, often the reality is that neighbor nations probably will not intervene where intervention is morally justifiable; and as we have suggested, there is no guarantee that multi-national entities (e.g., the UN) will act more justly than unjustly. Thus, absent, a willing “neighbor,” the next potential actor is any nation – or coalition of nations – near enough, strong enough, and “just” enough to stop what needs stopping.

But surely I can hear the shrill objection. No one really wishes the United States to be world’s policeman. Nor should it be. But what we can do, short of assuming the role of sheriff, is to make wise and strategic use of the power, resources, and influence that we possess. Thus, we must press other nations, diplomatically, to do their share of the work. At the same time, because of the status of the U.S in the world, it will be more involved in international affairs than any other nation, for better or worse. This, however, in and of itself is not imperialism; rather, it is stewardship, and it should be added, a large part of responsible statecraft. We do well to remember that to possess much and be privileged is not wrong per se; but it does mean that we have much to give, and many in the world need our help. Recall the truth in the adage that to whom much has been given, much will be required.

It has been said that people do not cherish their own freedom if they are unwilling to identify with the less fortunate. Not only just-war moral reasoning but ancient proverbial wisdom beckons people of principle, irrespective of their location in life, to act on behalf of the traumatized. Such a call bears repeating, especially in a morally obtuse cultural climate:

If you faint in the day of adversity,

How small is your strength.

Rescue those who are being led away toward death,

Hold back those stumbling toward the slaughter.

If you say, “But we knew nothing about this,”

Does not He who weighs the heart consider it?

Does not He who guards your life

Not know it?

And will not he repay each person

According to what that person has done?15

J. Daryl Charles serves as Director and Senior Fellow of the Bryan Institute for Critical Thought & Practice in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He is author of three books on the ethics of war and peace and humanitarian intervention. See Between Pacifism and Jihad: Just War and Christian Tradition (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005); (with Timothy J. Demy) War, Peace and Christianity (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010); and (with David D. Corey), The Just War Tradition: An Introduction (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2011). This paper was presented by Dr. Charles at the Third Annual Leavenworth Ethics Seminar sponsored by the U.S. Army Command & General Staff College (CSGC) and the CGSC Foundation last November at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Dr. Charles' academic degrees include a Ph.D. from Westminster Theological Seminary, Ph.D. Studies from Catholic University of America, and a Certificate from the University of Siegen in Germany. His work focuses on a wide range of themes that concern the intersection of faith and culture, including criminal justice ethics, religion in the public sphere, bioethics, war and peace and humanitarian intervention, and natural law. He is author or co-editor of 11 books, including most recently with David D. Corey The Just War Tradition: An Introduction (ISI Books, 2011), with David B. Capes Thriving in Babylon (Wipf and Stock, 2011), Retrieving the Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things (Eerdmans, 2008), Faithful to the End (Broadman and Holman, 2007), and Between Pacifism and Jihad (InterVarsity Press, 2005).

Last Updated on Wednesday, 15 August 2012 17:15