What Does it Mean to Fight a Just War?
Published February 14, 2023
Reports from the invasion of Ukraine strongly suggest that Russia and its leaders have committed war crimes against the Ukrainian people in defiance of international human right standards. Russia’s unprovoked act of aggression and attacks on civilians in urban centers are crimes against humanity. And countless bombings, like that of a maternity hospital in Mariupol, are clear violations of the Geneva Conventions.
- Are the consequences to breaking the Nuremberg principles too light if they are being broken?
- Are there any downsides with the Nuremberg principles?
- Watch “War Crimes in Ukraine: The Pursuit of International Justice,” with H. R. McMaster and David Schwendiman, on Battlegrounds. Available here.
- Read “NATO’s Nordic Realignment,” by Thomas Henriksen via Defining Ideas. Available here.
- Watch “Second Fronts in Great-Power Conflicts,” with Russell Berman and Michael Auslin, on PolicyEd. Available here.
Reports from the invasion of Ukraine strongly suggest that Russia and its leaders have committed war crimes against the Ukrainian people—including torture, rape, and the intentional killing of non-combatants.
The soldiers, military leaders, and political actors who have committed these crimes have violated international laws erected over the last century—laws that derive from Thomas Aquinas and the “just war theory” of the thirteenth century.
The First Geneva Convention - a wartime humanitarian agreement - went into force in 1864, after the war between the Austrians and the French revealed the horrific carnage made possible by modern weaponry.
The devastating effects of chemical weapons in WWI led to the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which banned the use of chemical and biological weapons.
In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the universal declaration of human rights, which declared a common set of fundamental human rights—including the rights to life, liberty, and security of one’s person.
And two years later the General Assembly adopted the Nuremberg principles, a framework of basic norms governing what is expected of states and political leaders in matters related to war.
Through the progression of these agreements, there are 3 overarching categories of crimes that are express violations of the lawful conduct of war:
The first is the “Crime of Aggression,” which is when a military invades another sovereign country without justification or provocation.
The second category is “Crimes Against Humanity,” which can occur during wartime or peace. Crimes against humanity are committed when there is a widespread and systematic attack on any civilian population, including rape, torture, murder, and disappearance.
The third body of crimes are “War Crimes.” These are crimes that violate the Geneva Conventions. They include attacks on civilians, infrastructure, and other unjustified non-military objectives, as well as the taking of hostages.
There is overwhelming evidence that Russia has committed all 3 of these crimes in Ukraine. The Russian invasion was an unprovoked act of aggression. Russian attacks on civilians in urban centers are crimes against humanity. And countless bombings, like that of a maternity hospital in Mariupol, are war crimes in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions.
All war is terrible. But the global community has agreed to a universal set of laws and standards meant to make war less inhumane, and limit the tragedy and torment of war as much as possible.
The Nuremberg principles stipulate that political and military leaders who violate international humanitarian laws and the rules of war must be held accountable.
Russian leaders are under investigation and face judgment for for war crimes committed since the renewed assault on Ukraine in 2022.