Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Just or Unjust War?

James Skillen


April 12, 1999

Most of the important military and political questions about U.S. and NATO involvement in the Balkans have been raised by now. The question that will outlive all others is the one about justice.

Chuck Colson has gone on record declaring that the United States has violated the just-war doctrine by bombing Serbia. Those criteria, he says, do not permit aggression against a sovereign state. The Kosovo violence is a matter entirely internal to Yugoslavia.

Quite in contrast to Colson, some German pacifists have reversed their opposition to the use of lethal force in this instance because of their revulsion at Milosovic's slaughter and expulsion of Kosovo's Albanians.

Thus, in the name of justice, Colson (and others) argue against military intervention while some German pacifists (and others) are willing to countenance the use of force to try to halt the greater evil.

Colson has wedded the just-war criterion of nonaggression to the modern idea of state sovereignty. But there are other dimensions of UN and Geneva conventions that must also be considered, especially in view of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. The undoing of that quasi-federal state following the dissolution of the Communist bloc has, for many years, drawn in U.S. and other NATO countries to help stop civil wars and broker settlements.

Insofar as NATO is working to establish a framework that can do justice to the diverse peoples involved, a limited use of force may well meet criteria of protecting the innocent. This is apparently the call of justice to which the German pacifists are responding. Acquiescence in genocide, if reasonable means can be used to prevent it, could very well mean complicity in that grave injustice.

The question that follows, of course, is whether the U.S. and NATO are, in fact, making wise decisions that will halt the killings and help establish just governments in the Balkans. The Clinton administration evidently harbored false expectations about how Milosovic would respond to the bombing. Without doubt, circumstances have changed radically for the worse for the Kosovars because of Milosovic's slaughter and expulsion of so many of them. Military action has not stopped these crimes and may have aggravated them.

The consequence is that NATO countries now bear an even greater responsibility to help bring about a just settlement. Justice will certainly not be achieved if at this point the U.S. and its NATO allies decide to cut their losses and continue to pursue a strategy designed primarily to keep their own military personnel from the dangers of war.

Bringing about a more just situation in the Balkans may require something much more costly in American lives and dollars than the Clinton administration anticipated. But that is a responsibility the U.S. and NATO now bear. Colson may agree with David Ignatius that "Great powers cannot impose peace when the parties on the ground are not ready to make peace themselves. History also teaches that when we rashly promise military intervention, we risk harming most the very people we want to help" (Washington Post, 4/6/99). But NATO is now part of the conflict and justice requires that it fulfill promises, even rash ones, already made. To protect lives, to stop genocide, to restore refugees to their homes may require a very long-term commitment to peacekeeping and peacemaking. Justice will not permit us to walk away simply because the instigator of the conflict has raised the stakes.

—James Skillen, Executive Director
    Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”