Ethics in conflict and conflict prevention

This event will be in Zoom

Debates in the ethics of armed conflict often operate from within the just war paradigm. This panel will bring just war thinking into conversation with wider and critical approaches to ethical issues that arise across multiple stages of conflict. Starting with conflict prevention, it will explore the imaginations of world order that underpin and limit understandings of whether and how war should be prevented, and ask whether the responsibility to protect doctrine adequately addresses long-term and structural drivers of conflict. Moving to ethical questions arising in armed conflict, it will address the ethics of political violence in relation to both ‘limited strikes’ involving force short of war, and in the context of resistance, asking the question of who can legitimately be targeted by resistance movements. Finally, it will look at ethical issues in relation to the termination of conflict, asking whether and under what circumstances states have a duty to surrender.

Registration will close two hours before the event is due to start.



Constructing war: problem constitution and the idea of prevention, Johanna Rodehau-Noack, London School of Economics

In the present, there is a broad agreement among international actors that war destroys both human life and political order and should thus be averted. However, the conception of war as destructive and undesirable is a relatively new phenomenon. In this paper, I use Bentley Allan’s framework of problem construction to trace how the idea of prevention became possible against specific historic conditions and scientific rationalities. Using archival sources, I argue that in order for prevention to emerge as an idea, war needed to be constructed as an object warranting international governance. I show that it did so by going through three interlocked stages of problem construction: firstly, early Christian pacifists designated war as a distinct phenomenon constituting the opposite of ‘peace’ and, against the development of scientific standards such as causal chains and probabilism, constructed war as controllable by human intervention. Secondly, by  translating it into numbers and statistics, conflict researchers made war comparable across contexts and enabled its constitution as an international issue. Thirdly, war was problematised for different audiences by connecting it to existing issues such as Christian ethics, the civilisational telos, and cost-benefit rationality. These three dynamics resulted in an understanding of war according to which it not only can, but also should, be governed on the basis of both a deontological and consequentialist imperative to prevent. In this way, this analysis excavates how the idea of prevention relies on scientific developments of modernity and its cosmological location in distinctly European thought.


The Responsibility to Protect in a world of already existing intervention, Robin Dunford and Michael Neu, University of Brighton

In the face of humanitarian crises, members of the international community are often presented with a choice: engage in forms of action, including military intervention, or stand by and watch. This framing ignores practices of intervention that are already taking place and contributing to the emergence and perpetuation of humanitarian crises, and limits thinking on prevention. Instead of addressing the structural drivers of conflict, and the complicity of the international community in stoking the flames of conflict, focus falls on last minute measures of early warning and preventative diplomacy. This paper calls for a renewed focus on the ‘already existing’ practices of intervention that generate ideal conditions for conflict, tracing their implications for both conflict prevention and the ethics of military intervention. In so doing, it argues that it is a mistake to follow recent literature in responding to already existing intervention by simply adding to the Responsibility to Protect, for instance, duties to engage in structural prevention and to support refugees. Rather, what is needed is a more fundamental rethink that departs from the Responsibility to Protect.


Just limited strikes? Revisiting the ethics of force short of war. Daniel Brunstetter, University of California, Irvine

What types of limited strikes are there and how are they justified? To answer these questions, this article explores two different types of limited strikes that are arguably to be considered force short of war. The “Hot Pursuit” narrative delineates the way in which states respond to terrorist attacks against non-state actors, combining both punitive and preventive arguments to justify striking targets within the borders of other states. Tracing the US response to attacks on its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (1998) to the Indian response to terrorists attacks by Jaish-e-Mohammed militants (2019) amidst emerging norms of drone use reveals how limited strikes went from a “do something” reaction to self-defense norm. The “Red Line” narrative articulates the manner in which states back foreign policy goals with the threat of limited force if other states do not comply. The inherent risk is twofold: on the one hand, the reputational costs of bluffing; on the other, the escalatory risk of carrying through with the threat. From the escalatory campaigns to enforce the no-fly zone in Iraq in the 1990s (Operation Northern Watch), to Western non-strikes and strikes in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, amidst open threats against Iran and North Korea, this narrative balances the weight of inaction versus the ethical dilemmas of over-action. Importantly, the perceived legitimacy of each narrative is intertwined with other narratives about the use and abuse of just war and the perceived failure of RtoP to respond to the challenges states face when combatting terrorist groups, as well as other states seeking or using weapons of mass destruction.


Resisting unjust aggression: the case for the targeting of security forces during occupations. Alex Crockett, University of Durham

It is widely accepted that individuals and states have a right to resist unjust aggression, a right enshrined in international law and various moral and ethical frameworks. However the right to continued resistance during an occupation is not universally accepted. It may seem intuitive that ‘Just Warriors’ should be able to continue their struggle against ‘Unjust Aggressors’ but some Just War Theorists adopt a highly restrictive view on the legitimacy of armed resistance after a state surrenders.

For those who defend this possibility, one area of particular scrutiny is the question of who could be targeted by ‘Just Resistors’. Accepting a right to resist does not necessarily mean accepting a right to kill, there are non-lethal options for resistance. But should those approaches fail, who can be targeted? And what degrees of culpability must those targets display to be legitimately justified? 

This paper reflects on the ethics of resistance, exploring the threats to two kinds of security forces: firstly, members of foreign occupying forces; secondly, members of indigenous forces aligned with them. In doing so the paper explores the arguments around who represent legitimate targets for justified resistance and what impact different degrees of culpability have on any targeting criteria.


The ethics and law of surrender in orthodox just war theory and regular war theory. Henry Padden, University of Durham

This paper seeks to contribute to the limited but growing literature on what has been called jus ex bello or jus terminatio – justice in war termination – by focusing on one issue in particular: surrender.  The historical and orthodox just war tradition purports to be the subset of just war theory which most closely reflects the principles of the law of armed conflict.  In the absence of a law of war exit, and given the close historical relationship between the law of armed conflict and the just war tradition, it is this tradition to which this paper will turn in formulating an answer.

It will focus on the arguments of Vattel and Walzer as representatives of the orthodox just war tradition, proceeding by examining the various duties and obligations concerning warfare that emerge from their accounts of state responsibility and seek to address how a jus ex bello, and specifically a duty of surrender, might be extrapolated from the already-existing positions.  Finally, it will consider any obstacles that might prevent a moral duty of surrender from being expressed legally. 

The concerns of this chapter can be best summarised as, firstly, evaluating the consistency of a duty of surrender with orthodox just war theory principles, secondly, evaluating the extent to which a duty of surrender is an expression of them and, thirdly, specifying a duty of surrender in accordance with orthodox just war theory.  In all cases it will seek to demonstrate that acceptance of a duty of surrender does not require adherence to a radical conception of the just war.

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