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Moral Confusion in Gaza and Ukraine

In my last post for the CIPS Blog, I drew readers’ attention to Robert Entman’s 1991 article comparing media coverage of the shooting down of Korean Airlines Flight 007 in 1983 and Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988. It is worth re-reading Entman’s piece in the light of media coverage of the recent destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. This has framed the disaster as a crime of mass murder, responsibility for which lies on the shoulders of Russian president Vladimir Putin. (For a snapshot of magazine covers on the issue, see here.)

By contrast, Western media remain mostly silent about the killings of civilians in Ukraine by the Ukrainian army, which by now probably number around 500 (more, therefore, than were killed in MH-17). Similarly, while there has been criticism of Israeli actions in Gaza, which so far have killed at least 1,300 people, it has been muted; Western governments, who were quick to denounce Putin, have generally been supportive of Netanyahu.

Just cause is inevitably subjective, and in itself is no basis on which to draw sweeping conclusions about the morality of actions in war.

This is evidence of considerable moral confusion, the root of which lies in an overemphasis on the just war criterion of just cause at the expense of every other form of moral calculation. Because most journalists and politicians in the West believe that the Ukrainian and Israeli governments have a just cause (i.e. self-defence) while their enemies do not, the former are given enormous latitude and the latter none. But just cause is not the be-all and end-all of morality in war. Other issues also need to be considered.

For simplicity’s sake, let us assume that Ukraine and Israel have just cause and their opponents do not. Does that mean that the former are justified in waging war? (And let us make no mistake: what is happening there is war, not ‘anti-terrorist operations’.) No, because ‘right intention’ matters also. Are the governments really acting to defend their people, or because they are prideful and unwilling to compromise, or because they fear for their political future if they do not? Are their actions a ‘last resort’?

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Arguably not, in both cases. Since coming to power in February, the Ukrainian government has made no effort to seek a political solution to its country’s problems by means of constitutional reform, political concessions of other sorts, or negotiation. Is there a ‘reasonable chance of success’? In Israel’s case, this seems doubtful, since experience suggests that any success is likely to be short-lived: destroyed tunnels will be rebuilt and rockets fired will be replaced. Are the military operations proportionate? In both cases, again, arguably not: is it really worth killing thousands of people and destroying the infrastructure of two provinces in order to avoid constitutional changes giving greater autonomy to the eastern regions of Ukraine? Is killing over 1,000 Palestinians proportional to whatever damage Hamas was doing to Israel? However just their cause, the actions of the Ukrainian and Israeli governments may be unjust nonetheless.

But even if the wars as a whole are just, that does not mean that those governments have licence to use whatever force they wish. The morality of whether one may go to war (jus ad bellum) and the morality of what one may do during war (jus in bello) are distinct. This in turn implies a ‘moral equality of combatants’. Soldiers on the unjust side have the same moral status as those on the just side. As such the former may kill the latter, who in turn are obliged to abide by the same laws of war as the former.

In recent years, some just war theorists (notably Jeff McMahan) have argued against this, saying that no sound moral principle exists for concluding that those with unjust causes may do what those with just ones may, or that those with just causes must face the same restrictions on their actions as those with unjust ones. This is certainly in accordance with the way that many view the wars in Gaza and Ukraine—i.e. that collateral damage caused by states in pursuit of a just cause may be ignored, but that caused by non-state actors in pursuit of an unjust cause is ‘murder’.


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But even McMahan admits that whatever the theoretical arguments against separating jus ad bellum and jus in bello, in practice the laws of war have to rest on this separation. Everybody considers his or her cause just, and laws based on the idea that those with just causes have more latitude than those with unjust causes will simply give more latitude to everybody. If we are to restrict violence in war, we must treat all equally. Thus a Hamas fighter is just as entitled to shoot at an Israeli soldier as vice versa, and a Ukrainian rebel is just as entitled to shoot at a Ukrainian army soldier (or for that matter what he believes to be a Ukrainian airplane, even if mistaken) as a Ukrainian army soldier is entitled to shoot at a rebel. By the same logic, collateral damage caused by rebel attacks is as excusable as collateral damage caused by government attacks, and government forces bear just as much responsibility for such damage as rebels do.

Just cause is inevitably subjective, and in itself is no basis on which to draw sweeping conclusions about the morality of actions in war. Instead, we should bear in mind that what matters is not the justice of a cause but the actual consequences of actions. The question to ask is not “who has just cause?” but “who is killing the most people?”. Viewed that way, the morality of the conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine looks very different.

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