How do Russia’s reasons for war stack up? An expert on ‘just war’ explains
War is always a tragedy. It sometimes seems inevitable. But is it ever justified?
Philosophers, theologians, politicians and military leaders have wrestled with this question for millennia. And to a large degree, they’ve come to some basic agreements about what makes a war morally defensible: a set of ideas known as the “just war tradition.”
That’s not to say that they always agree on how to apply just war principles to an actual conflict. Given the Kremlin’s attempts to justify its invasion of Ukraine, including its groundless accusations of genocide, it’s worth analyzing Russia’s position through the lens of the just war tradition – the focus of my work as a political scientist who studies the ethics of conflict.
Although many contemporary approaches are secular, they have been particularly influenced by Christian thinkers. This tradition dates to the fourth century, when Augustine of Hippo, also known as St. Augustine, grappled with how people could reconcile their beliefs about nonviolence with political and military service to their country.
Ultimately, the tradition evolved to encompass six principles to evaluate the justness of a war: legitimate authority, just cause, proportionality, likelihood of success, last resort and right intent.
1. Legitimate authority
Historically, just war analysis began by asking about legitimate authority. Had the war been declared by a responsible sovereign? In the classical just war tradition, the right to wage war was limited to the highest secular authority in a particular political community.
Today, some scholars suggest that only the United Nations holds this authority, since the U.N. charter has outlawed the use of force except in self-defense. And Vladimir Putin’s legitimacy can certainly be questioned, given the lack of free and fair elections in Russia.
However, classical just war thinkers were deeply concerned about civil disorder. Thirteenth-century scholar Thomas Aquinas went so far as to caution against overthrowing a tyrant if the community would suffer “greater detriment from the ensuing disorder than it did from the tyrannical government itself.”
2. Just cause
To be justifiable, a war must also be fought with the aim of accomplishing a just cause. Traditionally, two motives were considered just: self-defense and righting wrongs. Aquinas defined a just war as one fought to “avenge injuries, if some nation or state … has neglected to punish a wrong committed by its citizens, or to return something that was wrongfully taken.”
These are slippery definitions, and the Kremlin has argued for war in Ukraine on both counts.
First, does Russia have a legitimate self-defense claim? Russian officials have repeatedly claimed that Ukraine poses a threat to Russian security because of its potential admission to the NATO alliance.
But joining NATO is a lengthy, complicated process that requires significant reforms within the aspiring member state and unanimous agreement from the existing members. Many member countries have been resistant to the idea of enlarging NATO to include Ukraine, although the nation has been cooperating with the alliance for decades.
Putin has also claimed that Ukraine seeks to “bring war” to Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014, and that it has “laid claim to several other Russian regions.” Yet the Ukrainian government denies any plan to forcefully retake the occupied territories. What’s more, Ukraine’s standing army is just a quarter of Russia’s, and its air force, less than a tenth.
What about Russia’s justice concerns?
The Kremlin claims that Ukraine is committing genocide against Russian-speakers in the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, where separatists supported by Moscow have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014. That conflict has killed more than 14,000 people, including more than 3,000 civilians from both sides, though the scale of violence had decreased dramatically in recent years.
But the conflict in this region, known as the Donbas, fails to meet the legal definition of genocide, which separates tragic but unintended civilian casualties in war from deliberate attempts to destroy a people. There is simply no evidence corroborating Russia’s claims. Nor is Ukraine a fascist state, despite Putin’s claims.
Moscow’s concerns that Ukrainian-language policies discriminate against Russian speakers, who make up about a third of the country, have some validity. Still, the new law does not ban the use of Russian, despite Kremlin media reports to the contrary.
Even if protecting language rights were a just cause, justifying war would be difficult because of another principle: proportionality. All wars cause harm, but a justifiable use of force cannot cause more harm than the good it hopes to promote.
Russia’s war has already led to significant damage to civilian areas in major cities. As of March 3, 331 civilians had been killed, according to the U.N., and deaths will likely rise as Russian forces increase their attacks on cities. One million people have already fled the country.
The weakness of Russia’s claimed just cause means that this war cannot be considered proportional. As Catholic philosopher Francisco de Vitoria put it in the 16th century, pursuing “trivial offenses” by military means is wrong because of the “cruel and horrible” effects of war.
4. Likelihood of success
The logic of proportionality also requires considering the probability of success. As one contemporary ethicist put it, “‘probability’ is considerably more likely than a mere ‘hope,’ ‘chance,’ or ‘possibility.’” There must be a real chance that the use of force can actually accomplish the war’s stated aims.
At first glance, this principle might seem biased against the weak. Some scholars have argued that countries should be allowed to defend themselves from aggression, even if the chances of success aren’t high.
If the Kremlin’s war aims could not be achieved, any war it initiated would be inherently unjust, as lives would have been sacrificed to no avail. And as Western pundits and at least one retired Russian general have warned, Russian attempts to take over all of Ukraine would likely generate a drawn-out insurgency.
5. Last resort
The principle of “last resort” demands that all other reasonable means of resolving the conflict must be exhausted before going to war.
The day before the invasion, Putin claimed to be willing to negotiate. Yet as alarm spread in early February about Russia’s force buildup, the Kremlin spurned cooperation with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an intergovernmental institution that aims to reduce military tensions by fostering transparency. Ukraine asked for clarification about Russia’s forces near its border, as OSCE members must give prior notification for exercises involving at least 9,000 troops. But Russia refused to attend joint sessions on the matter.
Security analysts have argued that Russian draft agreements presented to NATO and the United States in December 2021 seem to have been intended for rejection, though the U.S. and NATO responded by suggesting talks on nuclear disarmament and missiles.
6. Right intent
Finally, the principle of right intent asserts that the attackers’ stated cause must be the actual motivating cause.
It’s impossible to know with certainty what someone is thinking, but measuring people’s actions against their claims is one way to evaluate intent. Claims about protecting Russian speakers ring hollow as escalating violence endangers Russian-speaking Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. The Kremlin’s fast-track process of giving Russian citizenship to Ukrainians in the Donbas jars with claims that Russian citizens must be rescued.
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How media reports of ‘clashes’ mislead Americans about Israeli-Palestinians
How media reports of ‘clashes’ mislead Americans about Israeli-Palestinians
Israeli police attacked mourners carrying the coffin of slain Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on May 13, 2022, beating pallbearers with batons and kicking them when they fell to the ground.
Yet those who skimmed the headlines of initial reports from several U.S. media outlets may have been left with a different impression of what happened.
“Israeli Police Clash with Mourners at Funeral Procession,” read the headline of MSNBC’s online report. The Wall Street Journal had a similar headline on its story: “Israeli Forces, Palestinians Clash in West Bank before Funeral of Journalist.”
Fox News began the text of its article with “Clashes erupted Friday in Jerusalem as mourners attended the burial of veteran American Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh who was shot dead Friday when covering a raid in the West Bank city of Jenin.”
There is no mention in the headlines of these articles about who instigated the violence, nor any hint of the power imbalance between a heavily armed Israeli police force and what appeared to be unarmed Palestinian civilians.
Such language and omissions are common in the reporting of violence conducted by Israel’s police or military. Similar headlines followed an incident in April in which Israeli police attacked worshippers at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Then, too, police attacks on worshippers – in which as many as 152 Palestinians were injured by rubber bullets and batons – were widely described as “clashes.”
Neutral terms aren’t always neutral
The use of a word like “clashes” might seem to make sense in a topic as contentious as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which violent acts are perpetrated by both sides.
But as a scholar of Palestinian history and an analyst of U.S. media coverage of this topic, I believe using neutral terms such as “clashes” to describe Israeli police and military attacks on Palestinian civilians is misleading. It overlooks instances in which Israeli forces instigate violence against Palestinians who pose no threat to them. It also often gives more weight to official Israeli narratives than to Palestinian ones.
U.S. media have long been accused of misleading their audience when it comes to violence committed against Palestinians. A 2021 study from MIT of 50 years of New York Times coverage of the conflict found “a disproportionate use of the passive voice to refer to negative or violent action perpetrated towards Palestinians.”
Using the passive voice – for example, reporting that “Palestinians were killed in clashes” rather than “Israeli forces killed Palestinians” – is language that helps shield Israel from scrutiny. It also obscures the reason so many Palestinians would be angry at Israel.
It’s not just The New York Times. A 2019 analysis by data researchers in Canada of more than 100,000 headlines from 50 years of U.S. coverage across five newspapers concluded that “the U.S. mainstream media’s coverage of the conflict favors Israel in terms of both the sheer quantity of stories covered, and by providing more opportunities to the Israelis to amplify their point of view.”
That 2019 study also found that words associated with violence, including “clash” and “clashes,” were more likely to be used in stories about Palestinians than Israelis.
One problem with using “clash” is that it obscures incidents in which Israeli police and security forces attack Palestinians who pose no threat to them.
Amnesty International, a human rights advocacy group, described the recent incident at the Al-Aqsa Mosque as one in which Israeli police “brutally attacked worshippers in and around the mosque and used violence that amounts to torture and other ill-treatment to break up gatherings.”
The word “clashes” does not convey this reality.
Using “clashes” also gives more credibility to the Israeli government version of the story than the Palestinian one. Israeli officials often accuse Palestinians of instigating violence, claiming that soldiers and police had to use lethal force to stave off Palestinian attacks. And that’s how these events are usually reported.
But Israeli human rights group B’Tselem’s database on Israeli and Palestinian fatalities shows that most of the roughly 10,000 Palestinians killed by Israel since 2000 did not “participate in hostilities” at the time they were killed.
We saw this attempt to shift the blame to Palestinians for Israeli violence in the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. According to her colleagues at the scene of her death, an Israeli military sniper deliberately shot and killed the veteran journalist with a live bullet to her right temple, even though she was wearing a “PRESS” flak jacket and helmet. One or more snipers also shot at Abu Akleh’s colleagues as they tried to rescue her, according to eyewitness accounts.
At first, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said that “armed Palestinians shot in an inaccurate, indiscriminate and uncontrolled manner” at the time of her killing – implying that Palestinians could have shot Abu Akleh. Then, as evidence mounted disproving this account, Israeli officials changed course, saying that the source of the gunfire “cannot yet be determined.”
The New York Times initially reported that Abu Akleh “was shot as clashes between the Israeli military and Palestinian gunmen took place in the city.” Further down in the same story, we read that Palestinian journalist Ali Samudi, who was wounded in the same attack, said, “There were no armed Palestinians or resistance or even civilians in the area.” Yet this perspective is missing from the headline and opening paragraphs of the story.
A few days later, an analysis of available video footage by investigative journalism outlet Bellingcat concluded that the evidence “appears to support” eyewitnesses who said no militant activity was taking place and that the gunfire came from Israeli military snipers.
The New York Times has not updated or corrected its original story to reflect this new evidence.
It provides an example of why the use of “clash” has been widely criticized by Palestinian and Arab journalists. Indeed, the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalist Association in 2021 issued guidance for journalists, urging that they “avoid the word ‘clashes’ in favor of a more precise description.”
An incomplete picture
There is another problem with “clashes.” Limiting media attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict only when “clashes erupt” gives Western readers and viewers an incomplete picture. It ignores what B’Tselem describes as the “daily routine of overt or implicit state violence” that Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories face.
Without understanding the daily violence that Palestinians experience – as documented by groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International – it is harder for news consumers to fully comprehend why “clashes” take place in the first place.
But the way people get their news is changing, and with it so are Americans’ views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is especially true among younger Americans, who are less likely to receive their news from mainstream outlets.
Recent polls show that younger Americans generally sympathize with Palestinians more than older Americans. That shift holds among younger Jewish Americans and younger evangelicals, two communities that have traditionally expressed strong pro-Israel sentiments.
U.S. journalists themselves are also working to change how outlets cover Israeli violence. Last year several of them – including reporters from The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and ABC News – issued an open letter calling on fellow journalists “to tell the full, contextualized truth without fear or favor, to recognize that obfuscating Israel’s oppression of Palestinians fails this industry’s own objectivity standards.” So far, over 500 journalists have signed on.
Accurate language in the reporting of Israeli-Palestinian violence is not only a concern for journalists’ credibility – it would also provide U.S. news consumers with a deeper understanding of the conditions on the ground and the deadly consequences.
Large aquatic animals are being hunted and traded
Africa’s large aquatic animals are being hunted and traded: we assessed the scale
Across most of the world, and particularly in the tropics and subtropics, large wild aquatic animals – such as manatees, turtles and dolphins – are being hunted and traded. This is not a new phenomenon. Aquatic animal meat has been eaten, and sometimes used as remedies or in traditional ceremonies, throughout history.
This type of consumption is widespread. In some places this wild meat is an important source of nutrition, income, and cultural identity. Yet opportunities to exploit wildlife for economic gain – often illegally – increase the number of animals hunted in some places. Coupled with growing human populations, this has led to the unsustainable exploitation of some species.
Understanding the scope and potential threat of aquatic wild meat exploitation is an important first step toward appropriate conservation actions and policies.
We’re part of a large international team of conservation researchers and practitioners that recently published a paper on this. We carried out a literature review on the use of large aquatic animals (excluding fish) – what we call “aquatic megafauna” – for wild meat in the global tropics and subtropics. This topic is hugely under-researched, so this review represents one of the most in-depth assessments of the topic to date.
We focused on 37 species of conservation concern that are listed on the Appendices of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. The list includes several species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises (cetaceans), manatees and dugongs (sirenians), marine turtles (chelonians), and crocodiles (crocodylians).
Twelve of these species inhabit oceans and rivers in West, Central and Eastern Africa. These are regions that were in the tropics and subtropics and are where there are concerns about hunting, consumption and trade.
We found that the consumption of these aquatic animals is widespread in coastal regions, to varying degrees. Some species are likely to be at risk from over-exploitation, particularly species inhabiting rivers and freshwater areas.
For most of the species monitored, a major issue is that animals are unintentionally caught as bycatch during fishing. They’re then opportunistically killed and eaten or sold, instead of being released when alive.
Dolphins, manatees and turtles (large aquatic animals)
We found evidence of the use of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) in most countries in tropical Africa, particularly in West Africa. Their meat was used for a variety of purposes including food, shark bait, and traditional medicine.
One species considered to be particularly at risk is the Atlantic humpback dolphin (Sousa teuszii). Distributed solely along Africa’s Atlantic coast, it’s one of the least understood coastal dolphins in the world. Because it has such a small population size and lives close to shores – where it can get captured by small-scale fishers – it’s highly vulnerable.
African manatees (Trichechus senegalensis), distributed exclusively in West and Central Africa, and dugong (Dugong dugon), whose range spans into East Africa, are legally protected in nearly all countries in which they occur. However, the team found evidence that they were being used for various purposes including food and traditional medicine to some degree in all countries. Most manatee populations cannot withstand human-induced mortality because their populations are highly sensitive to changes in adult survival. In recent years, high losses to populations of African manatees have been reported.
Turtles face a similar threat. The capture and consumption of marine turtle adults, and harvest of their eggs, is ubiquitous across much of the species’ ranges. This includes mainland Africa and the African islands. However, as with the other aquatic megafauna, larger-scale monitoring is needed to assess impacts and sustainability.
Risks to riverine megafauna – those living in rivers – from harvest may be particularly high, even if opportunistic, because these species face multiple threats in the same restricted area. The threats include dams, intensive fishing, and pollution where human population density is high. In Africa, this is true of African manatees and freshwater turtles (which were not assessed in the study, but are widely hunted).
Riverine megafauna may suffer from a lack of management and research, and will require increased conservation efforts. This is because they’re neither seen as terrestrial species nor as fish, so it’s not often clear at the national level who is responsible for their conservation and management.
Across the tropics and subtropics, there are clearly differences in local circumstances between areas. The drivers of hunting and consumption, hunting technologies used, human density and other threats to animals and their habitats, and how they change over time, will influence harvest sustainability.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that the use of aquatic megafauna for meat is likely to be far more widespread in terms of frequency and species than reported in the review. This is because monitoring and reporting is limited. Also because many of the species are protected by national laws, or are charismatic, so their use is secretive.
The trans-boundary nature of harvests and associated trade of these oceanic, coastal, and riverine species requires increased international attention and cooperation.
Vladimir Putin is Hitler
The war in Ukraine has produced a disorienting array of analogies. Vladimir Putin is Hitler. Volodymyr Zelensky is a Nazi. Ukraine could become like Afghanistan or Korea. Russia should accept its borders, just as post-colonial African countries did. The invasion is no different to what the west did in Iraq. The Ukrainians are like the Irish fighting for independence from the UK – but also like Brexiteers resisting the EU.
Also Read: Russia’s reasons for war stack up?
Analogies are a key part of how the war in Ukraine is being justified and understood. The invasion is such a seismic (and for many people, surprising) event, that we have a particularly strong appetite for comparisons. Analogies are ubiquitous in human discourse and have always played an important role in politics and international affairs.
Analogy is embedded in our thinking and language. Cognitive psychologists talk about “analogical reasoning”, in which we use what we know about one situation to infer information about another. We use this to understand our circumstances and plan action – a child avoids cauliflower on the basis of having tried and disliked broccoli. Writing symbolises and words categorise similar phenomena. Hence, Russia has outlawed even calling what it is doing in Ukraine a “war”.
Comparison is also built into scientific enquiry, in that it involves drawing inferences between cases which are thought to be analogous. In the study of peace and conflict, comparison has been a way to generate theories about how to manage conflict, such as addressing basic needs, imposing power-sharing between opponents, or third party intervention. But just how generally applicable much of this broad brush knowledge is in complex and variable conflict arenas will always be open to debate.
In politics, analogy is used to both create policy and justify it. For instance, the “lessons” of Vietnam strongly influenced later American foreign policy. The fear of “another world war” currently holds sway over NATO’s approach to Ukraine. Arguing by analogy may be one of the most persuasive strategies of communication. Putin’s talk of “denazification” and Zelensky’s invocation of western traumas like the Blitz, 9/11, and Pearl Harbour have undoubtedly helped rally their audiences. Such examples evoke strong imagery and narrative, and supposed real world evidence, in support of positions.
This is common to all conflicts. Partisans promote their preferred comparisons, especially for international consumption. One of the most well known warring analogies comes from one of the most intractable conflicts: Israel-Palestine. Israelis liken the threats they face to Nazism, and fear another Holocaust. Palestinians, however, regard the Israeli occupation and settlement of Palestine as apartheid and ethnic cleansing. Israel-Palestine, in turn, acts as an analogy for other groups in conflict – an archetype of besiegement for some, and of oppression for others.
Analogies have also been useful in ending conflicts. Comparisons help peacemakers explain and legitimise what they are trying to achieve. In recent decades, South Africa has probably been the most referenced international peace analogy. It is now standard in any peace negotiation process for international comparisons and ideas borrowed from transitions elsewhere to be involved. A recognised likeness helps create relationships of solidarity between people pursuing peace in different countries.
A remarkable example of analogy in peacemaking comes from Northern Ireland. For decades, the Irish nationalist leader John Hume lobbied in Dublin, London, Washington and Brussels for a peaceful solution to the Northern Ireland conflict. In speech after speech, he repeated the example of Franco-German reconciliation in the context of European integration. If they can do it, Hume said, why can’t we in Northern Ireland? This analogy was the rhetorical centrepiece of arguments which ultimately gained wide acceptance in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Does the historical accuracy of an analogy matter? Perhaps not, if an audience is disposed to accept it. But like all political communication, especially in war, analogies should be held up to scrutiny. They can reduce complex events to a simple morality tale. They may result from “confirmation bias” – people finding the lessons they want to in other situations – or outright manipulation. The comparisons mentioned at the outset of this article, for example, range from the insightful and constructive, to the absurd and dangerous.
In any case, for good or ill, analogies are inescapable and will continue to frame what unfolds in Ukraine. “Comparison is so fundamental to our cognition”, writes sociologist Reza Azarian, “that thinking without comparison is almost unthinkable”.
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