The Ethical War Blog

Expert discussion of the ethics of war, for all.

Bearing Witness: What Are Journalists Doing in Conflict Zones?

by Richard Stupart and Katherine Furman

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“Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering… are those who could do something to alleviate it – say, the surgeons at the military hospital where the photograph was taken – or those who would learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.” Sontag, 2003

What, morally speaking, are journalists doing in conflicts? They aren’t medics or aid workers, and they don’t have anything to distribute to those in desperate need. So, is their role simply to observe suffering? If so, observing isn’t itself morally good, or even morally neutral – think of the voyeur. And yet we have a nagging intuition that Sontag is wrong and the work of journalists covering human rights abuses and conflict is morally important. Can something about practices of observing suffering in fact justify them?

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Is There Anything Wrong with Collective Punishment?

by Holly Lawford-Smith

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In Eltham, London in 1993, five young white men murdered a young black man. The black man’s name was Stephen Lawrence. The white men’s names were Neil Acourt, James Acourt, Gary Dobson, David Norris, and Luke Knight. During the attack, the men shouted racist abuse at Lawrence and his friend Duwayne Brooks, and one assaulted Lawrence with a bat while another stabbed him in the neck with a ten-inch knife. This horrific hate crime resulted in an investigation that has dragged on for 25 years, with two of the men (Dobson and Norris) being found guilty of murder in 2012, after 18 years. As of April this year, the case was still open; Scotland Yard were waiting to see if new leads came forward in light of a BBC documentary.

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The Salisbury Incident and the Threshold for “Unlawful Use of Force” under International Law: between Stigmatization and Escalation

By Eliav Lieblich 

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On 4 March 2018, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were severely injured after being exposed to a nerve agent in the UK city of Salisbury. An officer, Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, also fell ill upon exposure to the substance. While only Mr Skripal and his daughter remain hospitalized as of today, dozens of others might have been put at risk by the agent.[1]

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Cyberattacks, Elections, and Casus Belli

By Patrick Taylor Smith

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Robert Mueller has recently indicted 13 people for using information technology to manipulate a US election. Russian intelligence agents have likely attempted to directly intervene by hacking election software, stealing emails from both the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee, and running assets to manipulate social media websites. Such cyberattacks have become almost overwhelmingly ubiquitous, and there is likely more to come. Ransomware attacks are 167 times more common than just a few years ago. Mega thefts of data are commonplace. There is strong evidence that at least one state—Russia—is engaged in a systematic campaign to undermine financial institutions, and hack vital infrastructure in a variety of countries. Many suspect that cyberattacks that cause serious physical damage and even death are not far off as attacks upon targets such as power plants and medical institutions become increasingly common.[1]

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Moral Forests and Just War Trees

By Michael Robillard

“Forest” Joshua Mayer. Used under: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

                ‘For God and County’

                ‘For our nation and its way of life’

                ‘For the man who was fighting to the left and to the right of me’

These have been the justifications given by political leaders and soldiers alike, for time immemorial, as to why wars must be fought or why they themselves chose to fight or stay. And despite our assessment of the overall soundness or appropriateness of such justifications, the brute fact remains that these reasons mobilise nations and keep people at war. Noticeably absent from this list are such justifications as, ‘for reasons of proportionality’, ‘for reasons of legitimate authority’, and ‘for ad bellum and in bello principles’.

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The Moral Responsibility of Child Soldiers and the Case of Dominic Ongwen

By Matthew Talbert and Jessica Wolfendale

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At least 100,000 people under the age of 18 serve in various capacities in armed groups around the world. In the public imagination, and from the perspective of international law, child soldiers are viewed as passive victims of adult agency and as therefore not responsible for their actions. This stereotypical view of child soldiers is widespread both because it captures an important aspect of the truth, and because it is uncomplicated and arouses sympathy: from the perspective of organizations working to end child soldiering, it is a useful image for the public to have. However, here we argue that the stereotype that child soldiers are universally exempt from responsibility is problematic. We contend that the non-responsibility of child soldiers is far from obvious once their capacities for independently motivated and goal-directed agency are taken into account, a view we explore in our forthcoming book, War Crimes: Causes, Excuses, and Blame (Oxford University Press). As we shall see, the case of Dominic Ongwen illustrates some of the problems with the assumption that child soldiers cannot be responsible for their actions.

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Expanding the Scope of International Criminal Law

By Stephen Riley

“International Criminal Court, ICC” Roel Wijnants. Used under: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

In the past few weeks we have witnessed the activation of the crime of aggression as a crime triable by the International Criminal Court (ICC). This formal operationalising of the crime takes place against a wider debate in civil society about the extension of the material jurisdiction of the Court. Alongside its existing material jurisdiction it has been argued that the ICC should try activities like crimes against migrants, environmental crimes, cyberwarfare and other criminal activities of international concern. These are all prima facie candidates for criminal liability and they deserve to be taken seriously as international criminal offences. The intention of this discussion is to separate principle from pragmatism in understanding these as international crimes. I argue that three core principles underlie our international criminal institutions: non injusta lex est, basic standards of humanity, and the idea of a jus gentium. These are natural law principles recognised under international law and support at least some further expansion of the scope of international criminal law.

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Not your Father’s Draft: Critiques of Progressive Conscription

By Amanda Cawston

“Regementets Dag 2014” Håkan Dahlström. Used under: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

In March 2017, the Swedish government voted to reinstate compulsory military service, or conscription. After suspending the program in 2010, dwindling recruitment combined with a perceived increase in regional threats to security has led the country to reimpose mandatory service.

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Does Catalonia have a right to secede?

By Amandine Catala

“General strike in Catalonia” Beverly Yuen Thompson. used under: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

The recent Catalan referendum on independence has inevitably raised the question: does Catalonia have a right to secede? This question might be understood as either a legal or a moral question: it might be asking either whether it is legally or whether it is morally permissible for Catalonia to secede. In either case, contrary to what polarized debates may suggest, the answer is neither obviously positive nor obviously negative. Moreover, even if a legal or a moral case for secession can be made, it does not follow that Catalonia should secede. To say that secession is legally or morally permissible is not to advocate secession. Consider the analogy with divorce: to say that divorce is legally or morally permissible is not to prescribe divorce.

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Just and Unjust Coups d’état? Zimbabwe and the Ethics of Military Takeover

By Christopher J Finlay

“Robert Mugabe”, a-birdie. used under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

The phenomenon of ‘coup d’état’ has recently forced itself back into public consciousness. After the ouster of Hosni Mubarak under pressure of the protesters in 2011, Mohamed Morsi’s politically illiberal but democratically elected government was overthrown by the Egyptian military in 2013. By 2014, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi had stepped down as Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian armed forces to run successfully for President. July 2016 saw an unsuccessful coup attempt in Turkey against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by a faction within the military. And in November 2017, Zimbabweans awoke to see a man in military fatigues on the national television station reading out a prepared statement to inform the public that the military had seized control – but denying emphatically that it was engaged in a ‘coup’.

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