Just War and Libya

In his weekly blessing yesterday, Pope Benedict called for an end to the fighting in Libya:

“My fear for the safety and well-being of the civilian population is growing, as is my apprehension over how the situation is developing with the use of arms,” the pope said.

“To international agencies and to those with political and military responsibility, I make a heartfelt appeal for the immediate start of a dialogue that will suspend the use of arms,” he said.

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The pope said that in moments of great international tension, there was more urgency for diplomatic efforts that take advantage of “even the weakest sign of openness to reconciliation” among the parties in conflict. Solutions should be “peaceful and lasting,” he said.

Not at all surprising that the pope would urge peace and dialogue, of course. Still, on Friday, the USCCB’s Committee on International Justice and Peace released a statement saying that the mission appeared to comply with just war requirements for “just cause”:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church limits just cause to cases in which “the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations [is] lasting, grave and certain.” (#2309) The just cause articulated in UN Security Council Resolution 1973 to demand “a ceasefire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians” appears to meet this criterion in our judgment.  Since the protection of civilians is paramount, a key question is:  Will the coalition actions stay focused on this limited goal and mission?

Bishop Hubbard, chair of the committee, goes on to ask other questions:

The just war tradition teaches that the use of force must have “serious prospects for success” and “must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated” (Catechism, #2309). Important questions include:  How is the use of force protecting the civilian population of Libya?  Is the force employed proportionate to the goal of protecting civilians?  Is it producing evils graver than the evil it hopes to address?  What are the implications of the use of force for the future welfare of the Libyan people and the stability of the region?

In addition, the use of force must be proportionate and discriminant.  The justice of a cause does not lessen the moral responsibility to comply with the norms of civilian immunity and proportionality. We recognize serious efforts are being made to avoid directly targeting civilians.  In fact, the just cause underlying the use of force is to protect civilians.  This moral responsibility leads to continuing questions:  Is force being used in ways that protect civilian lives?  Are civilian casualties being avoided?  Is the destruction of lives and property proportionate to the good being achieved in terms of saving civilian lives?

In the end, though, Bishop Hubbard is clear to point out that the bishops’ conference has “refrained from making definitive judgments because the situation on the ground remains complex and involves many prudential decisions beyond our expertise.”

So what do readers think? Does the Libyan mission qualify as a just war? And is that a separate question from whether U.S. forces should be getting involved?


  • Margaret Cabaniss

    Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at SlowMama.com.

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