Conference on ‘Is Just War Possible?’

Conference Report- Is a Just War Possible? Cumberland Lodge, 17th March 2008

Sir Michael Quinlan began the conference by giving the traditional justification for a 'just war' and outlining the principles for making decisions on going to war ('jus ad bellum') and waging war ('jus in bello'). In his view these principles were 'creaky but still serviceable'. In response, other participants pointed out the need for 'jus post bellum' principles – rules to conduct what happens after the war – and also observed that the traditional just war principles seemed to have been designed to provide a justification for waging war rather than preventing it.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind warned of the dangers of doing the 'wrong thing for the right reasons', which he believed Tony Blair had done with regard to the bombing of Serbia / Kosovo and the invasion of Iraq. The exact opposite had been the case when it came to international intervention in the genocide in Rwanda. The Bush / Blair doctrine of 'liberal intervention' had been "disastrous and has had appalling consequences". More efforts should be made short of all-out war to resolve conflicts.

Kate Adie observed that the media could not give a balanced position in reporting warfare, because media owners could and would dictate editorial policy; governments could and would pressure editors, and the audience could and would give critical feedback to editors if they did not like the messages that they felt were being broadcast. Coverage is therefore rooted in practical considerations and very few journalists get to participate in making major editorial decisions.

Melanie Phillips believed that the British media does the enemy's work by "regurgitating propaganda from the third world" and assisting in the academic deconstruction of truth, so that different opinions are presented as having more validity than an objective truth. The post-invasion debate over Iraq has been focused in terms of 'we were lied to over weapons of mass destruction' – a gross oversimplification – and this will hinder future efforts against international jihadists in Iran, Afghanistan, and Palestine who are currently waging asymmetric warfare against us.

John Sloboda outlined a new Oxford Research Group project, which aimed to create a universal record to document all the dead and injured from armed conflict throughout the world. War memorials are important lists of combatants in national cultures, but morality requires that civilians and enemies killed and injured in war should be remembered in respect of everyone's humanity.

Andrew Rigby gave a personal reflection on pacifism and observed that it is impossible to intervene in a conflict and at the same time remain above it. There is a need to explore alternative unarmed forms of intervention as an alternative to military force.

Small group discussions were an opportunity for our peace delegation to make the case for a 'peace first' approach – emphasising peace-building and justice-building before the question of military force arises. It was easier to speak out against the folly of war in the groups, and get some agreement that cooperation rather than conflict was needed to address problems such as terrorism and resource shortages. However, one group mostly considered future wars might be justified in these circumstances. There was a view that governments would press to include broader issues as justification for future wars, but that these cases would probably go beyond the traditional scope of 'just war'. There was a strong feeling that the international mechanisms of the United Nations lacked the legitimacy to authorise the legality of a war, but disagreement on how the relevant institutions could be improved.

The conference was well organised with the usual breaks facilitating useful informal conversations. The presentations gave a good range of views from some of the country's leading opinion-shapers. It was useful to see how 'establishment' figures were considering the question of military intervention and the unquestioned assumptions of some members of the conference. First, there was an assumption that it is the UK's / US's job to 'solve' other people's conflicts from the outside, whether or not we've been asked by those most affected, and without recognising the quasi-imperial flavour of that assumption. Second, there was an assumption that the UK/US appetite for military intervention was always led by humanitarian motives, when in fact self-interest has been a powerful motive. It was clear that many of those present had not thought some of these questions through before.

Our group felt the conference was more useful than we had anticipated. It was an opportunity to hear proponents of war justify their position and an opportunity for those against war to be seen and heard in an atmosphere conducive to thoughtful listening. We suggest the following titles for future Cumberland Lodge conferences: ‘A Just Peace’ on preventing war, and ‘Should Trident be replaced?’ on British nuclear weapons policy.


We are grateful to the Polden-Puckham Charitable Foundation for funding the NIS Peace Delegation.


David Gee

Di McDonald

Juliet McBride

Peter Burt.

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