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How to vote on air strikes - a brief guide

Once again, Parliament is to debate military action in the Middle East. MPs (and peers) will debate the case for action in Iraq against ISIL. The government’s position on military action and its motion before Parliament outline its case for action in Iraq. They emphasise the nature and activities of ISIL. The government has ruled out action in Syria without additional debate in Parliament.

In contrast to the Syria debate last year, there appears to be more support for action by the UK. Nevertheless, the government’s case for action still needs to be assessed.  MPs should use Just War criteria to do so. Here is a brief guide.

The Just War tradition is well established and arose from the question, is war ever justifiable? If we take the view that can be, the duty to act morally remains. The Just War tradition does not provide the answers but it helps us think through the key questions and guides us on the manner of the action that is ethically permissible.

  • The use of armed force is evil and can only be seen as a necessary evil under strict circumstances.
This is an obvious point but is important. The use of armed force means people will die and be injured. It also means putting people in our armed forces at risk. Using force is a significant step, never to be taken lightly.
  • War may only be waged by a legitimate authority.

This really means by a nation (or nations acting in concert) or the United Nations. International law must be respected (there may be cases where one country vetoes action at the United Nations against a wider consensus; that would at the least push for even more emphasis on ensuring the cause really is just).

Nation states responding to the Iraq government’s formal request for assistance qualify under this criterion. The request for help gives legal sanction for military action by other nations. It may also enable action in Syria against ISIL where the terror group is attacking Iraq from Syrian territory even indirectly via supply lines etc. However, even were this the case, it is not enough to simply respond to a request for help without satisfying other points first.

It is also worth considering whether action would have been justified if the Iraq government had not made a request for help (it has only recently done so). For example, UK political leaders have supported US actions in both Iraq and Syria without formal requests.

Finally on this point, a further question can be asked: which nations should take action? The UK has particular responsibilities as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

  • War may only be fought for a just cause
The offence must be actual, not simply possible. The offence must be intentional, important, objective and verifiable, and unilateral (the circumstances need to be carefully defined). The offence could be an act of aggression, or a threat or injustice (which must be carefully defined). It could be committed against a third nation (eg the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq) or it may be moral guilt demanding punishment.

In the case of ISIL, there seems little doubt about its activities over the past few weeks especially. For example, it is committing acts of aggression and threatens to commit further acts. It is also committing atrocities and shows little or no regard for the sanctity of human life.

  • War must be fought only with the right intention, both in terms of the common good (restoring peace) and in terms of motivation (eg love for victims of aggression but not vengeance).
  • War must be the last resort, with clear goals, and be conducted according to international law. The enemy must be able to sue for peace and the war must be both winnable and cause less harm than it prevents.

Such are the consequences of military action in terms of lives lost and damaged, it can only be used in the last resort and within a legal framework. It must be used in the context of a clear strategy. It is here that MPs may wish to ask what is the government’s overall foreign and defence strategy, looking beyond a few weeks? It is difficult to answer that question in any detail at the moment, and that is a problem. On the military side, the aims need to be clear too. It is not enough to say taking action is justified; we have to act in a just manner too.

The Just War tradition does not require us to know how the future will turn out, but with the information we have available we need to be reasonably confident that the action will be successful and that it will prevent greater harm than it causes. In the case of the Iraq War of 2003, the lack of a credible peace plan for after the war should have raised doubts (with the benefit here of hindsight). In the case of the action proposed today, MPs will be mindful of the ongoing loss of life in Iraq with the threat of further loss. The persecution of minorities has been a particular characteristic of ISIL. However, they should also seek assurance that the potential consequences of action have been considered. In addition they should seek a commitment to a much bigger humanitarian effort in the region.

  • The means used must be proportional and the means used must respect the immunity of the innocent.

The latest weapons are more sophisticated today than ever. However, innocent people are still injured and killed. If military action is used, every effort must be made to avoid this even to the extent of withholding action, or particular air strikes for example.

  • The dignity of humankind must be respected.

Are there alternative actions that are credible and which match the urgency of the situation? Can we find ways of bringing people to justice? Would the dignity of humankind be upheld or undermined if we take military action?

The situation in Iraq and Syria is complex. There are a variety of different conflicts in progress in both countries. Many have not attracted world attention in the same way as the aggression by ISIL. Nevertheless, there is a specific decision in front of Parliament today. The Just War tradition can provide a framework for thinking through the issues. Ultimately it will come down to a matter of judgement, while recognising that the use of force, even if justified in certain circumstances and when used in certain ways, represents a failure of humanity.

This article was first published by Christians on the Left on 26 September 2014.

Christians on the Left, 26 September 2014, 26/09/2014

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