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The Return of Just Wars?

SALZBURG – As war loomed over Kosovo ten years ago, Germany’s then foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, explained that the principle that had always governed his involvement in politics was: “Never again war; never again Auschwitz!” Ethnic cleansing and violence in Kosovo, however, soon made it clear to him that there were moments when one had to choose between those two imperatives: a new Auschwitz sometimes could be prevented only by means of war.

The idea of a “just war,” legitimized by a justa causa (just cause), though scorned for many years, is thus back in vogue. The notion used to be frowned upon because any warring party tends to view its own cause as just. Moreover, in the absence of an impartial judge, a winner can always impose his “truth” upon the vanquished, as happened with the Treaty of Versailles after World War I.

While “just wars” seem to be back, international law has also come to condemn waging aggressive (“unjust”) war as a punishable crime, with the consequence that every warring party now declares its wars to be a defense against foreign attack, much as Hitler did in 1939. (Indeed, all war ministries have become “defense ministries,” leaving one to wonder against whom a country must be defended if there are no longer any attackers.) But in this matter as well, the winner gets to judge who was the aggressor, so it is fortunate that Hitler did not prevail.

Of course, military intervention for purposes beyond defending one’s country remains possible, but requires a UN Security Council resolution. The latter alone, provided no permanent member of the Security Council disagrees, can decide whether a war is legitimized by a “just cause” (nowadays generally a gross breach of human rights).