There's an interesting article from Saturday's Guardian by Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford. His subject is the just war tradition. He argues for strengthening the UN and the role of international law.
A recent seminar in London drew together Christian just-war theorists from the United States and Britain to discuss the international scene in the light of Christian principles. It worked well because the participants shared a common intellectual framework and the view that, whatever moral judgments may be made about particular wars, the analysis provided by traditional just-war thinking was an indispensable intellectual tool.The Bishop of Oxford goes on to argue that, even if the UN is imperfect, influenced by the competing national interests at work within it, its collective process is more likely to yield results towards the 'common good' than is any single national interest - such as that of the US.
Nevertheless, there were strong differences of opinion between the dominant US perspective and the dominant European one, nowhere more marked than in attitudes towards the United Nations.
The first criterion for a war to be regarded as morally justifiable is that it must be declared by a legitimate authority. For most of history, this has been the supreme sovereign. Until 1945, there was no higher sovereignty than the government of a nation state, though, since then, the UN has, in principle, offered such an authority. Article 51 reserves to states the right of self-defence, but wars of intervention must be authorised by the security council.
The dominant American attitude at the London seminar was that the UN was corrupt, ineffective and liable to be manipulated by states hostile to US interests. There were predictions about its total collapse in the review later this year. It was only with difficulty that I extracted from one critic the admission that, on basic Christian just-war principles, even if the present UN is inadequate, there is a moral imperative to create something better and stronger.
The same imperative applies to international law, including the great body of human rights law. Future generations will regard this as one of the great achievements of the postwar world.
I have no quarrel with this as a general perspective. I, too, would want to look towards the strengthening of an international law informed by a robust concern for human rights and of collective institutions embodying and looking to implement that law and that concern. But the limitations in the perspective, as of this moment, have also to be recognized, and Richard Harries's article gives no sign at all of recognizing them.
If the world since 1945 has moved beyond the situation where the highest sovereignty was that of the individual nation state, it has not yet done so definitively. For the putatively higher instance of the UN doesn't satisfactorily represent the would-be morality of international law, and it is unacceptable to treat the mere aspiration of its one day coming to do that as a barrier to individual nations responding, when the UN will not, to episodes of humanitarian emergency or crisis. The just war tradition countenances states coming to the aid of peoples under attack by their own governments, in circumstances that are narrowly prescribed. The threshold is a high one, but it is not limitlessly high (see here and here). The UN, however, has repeatedly stood by as people by the tens of thousands have been attacked, massacred and starved. And so long as this state of affairs continues to obtain, the canons of the just war tradition may legitimately be invoked by any nation (under the appropriate conditions and provided it acts within the constraints of that tradition) to come to the rescue of those being done to death by their own governments.
It is sometimes said by opponents of the war to liberate Iraq that it is the reason why 'genuine' humanitarian intervention is now so difficult; the Iraq war discredited the whole idea. But this is a cheap, partisan and false point. For one thing, historical chronology is against it. The Iraq war wasn't the barrier to a UN intervention in either Rwanda or Kosovo. And the scandal of what has been allowed to happen in Darfur while the UN has stood back even from use of the word 'genocide' isn't adequately explained by the Iraq war. If the deaths and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people is not a sufficient emergency to mobilize the UN to effective action, then it is the institution itself as would-be embodiment and guarantor of the norms of the global community that is seriously wanting. Now a new tragedy is unfolding in Zimbabwe. For how long? To what, more terrible stage?
The aspiration towards 'international laws that reflect [the] moral dimension' is a good one. But we are, today, so very far short of this goal that invoking it isn't adequate as practical humanitarian politics. Where single nation states or willing coalitions of them act for good ends and within the constraints of the just war tradition, those who are concerned about the authority of the UN should point to them as an example for it.