Just War Theory
Published 10 Apr 2017
“For if a group defined by the chance of birth is persecuted, it is as though its members had not been born into the human race at all” –Richard Vernon
The overall thesis of the article, “What is Crime against Humanity,” is basically analyzing the concepts of the crimes against humanity that are incorporated into international law. The article brings up questions applicable in the consideration of determining or dividing what would be considered a “Just War” versus that of an “Unjust War.”
In developing the arguments used in this article, Vernon brings in examples from St. Augustine, the “scale of wrongness” as it applies to pirates at sea, along with numerous text references on the “Just versus Unjust War” debate. The author explains the moral differences of separation of enemies of a race or ethnicity, versus the separation of enemies of the human race or humanity.
The author does consider a variety of ethical theoretical considerations and principles of the Just War debate in his writing. Vernon writes regarding the ethical justification of war while dissecting some justifications as to their individual strengths and weaknesses.
The author discusses the concept of how much if any premeditation would need to be involved in setting the correctness of the Just War act on the right or wrong side of being “just” (Vernon, 2002, p.245).
Oftentimes throughout the article I feel more questions are fed to the reader while sometimes complicating the learning process of this already complicated subject. For example, when presenting the expression “crime against humanity,” the author brings up that the triteness of such an expression as “crimes against humanity” could as well describe “child abuse, or the cruel treatment of animals, or callous reductions of welfare payments to the chronically poor” (Vernon, 2002, p.237).
Later when providing information in regards to quantifying evil, the author begins discussing comparisons:
“How should we set out to compare the evil done by the Holocaust, by African slavery, and by the (near-) extermination of aboriginals in North America? If we employ a body count, then African slavery killed more people than the other two did. If we are looking at the proportion of the target group killed, then the aboriginal case is the worst. If we are looking at rates of killing per day, one might interject, the Rwanda genocide outclasses all three. If we were looking at the degree to which victims were compelled to collaborate in their own destruction…” (Vernon, 2002, p.238).
I believe Vernon often purposely poses more questions than answers in this article. I know this can be used to motivate readers to educate themselves while forming their individual opinions on any particular subject. However, I have to say that at the current non-expert level of knowledge I have of this particular subject, I would often find this to be more confusing than helpful. By the way, the above was probably only one half of the paragraph of questions the author included in just this one area.
The author did include a variety of ethical theoretical interpretations while occasionally including his own understandings along with these. For example, Vernon discussed St. Augustine’s beliefs in regards to horrific state acts while relating some of the information to Roman political life. Vernon divided and discussed the various categories of humanitarian crimes.
In general, in one way or another, I feel the author provided empirical evidence that can pertain to the just-war debate. Through bringing in examples of others perspectives, observations and experiences, the area of empirical evidence was pretty well covered. The great majority of the evidence was borrowed from texts on this subject.
For example, Vernon often quoted from “The Contract of Mutual Indifference,” a book written by Norman Geras (Vernon, 2002, p.244). The work attempts to present an understanding of atrocities as they relate to international and national policies and politics. One of the thoughts the author deliberates is how neither state responsibility nor community responsibility provide adequate protection for its people. One quote he included in regards to WWII was that “People went to their deaths at Auschwitz or Treblinka, notwithstanding that there were some others who cared about them” (Vernon, 2002, p.244).
The author brings in what might be considered the larger pieces along with the less obvious evidence in discussing the Just-war debate. Vernon touches on the “humanity-as-victim thesis which was introduced at Nuremberg by the French prosecuting attorney. In discussing this, the author brings up the difference of the immorality of eliminating certain races along with the different immorality of refusing to share the earth with a certain people. (I tend to see them as probably the same).
Here again there were questions that one might leave more perplexed than illuminated. The question was asked, “Why would humanity be devoid of meaning in the absence of diversity?” (Vernon, 2002, p.240).
I feel the author reaffirms the complexity of the subject, helping the reader to understand why there are so many misunderstandings and differences in opinions in the area of crimes against humanity and the debate of “Just War.” Vernon was successful in focusing on many important themes in the “Just War” debate. In fact, sometimes I felt the themes went all over the board and could have been more focused.
One of the weaknesses of the article in my opinion is that the author is attempting to analyze a complex issue, and in my opinion, Vernon makes the issue even more complex rather than unraveling or solving anything through his 18 page analysis. The article was written in a very academic style. This isn’t necessarily a negative in and of itself but it can limit one’s potential audience of this subject who are in their earlier stages of learning the subject than he is in discussing it.
I found the strengths of the article to be when the author would bring in information from outside sources. For example, because I have some personal interests in real pirates, I found the part of the article interesting when he discussed piracy precedents and how “pirates should not go unpunished simply because they operated at sea” (Vernon, 2002, p.235).
The material is convincing in my opinion mostly due to the outside resources Vernon used in tying up the bigger picture of the “Just-war” subject. A new resource is used each time he brings up a different aspect of “Just and
Unjust War” thus providing the reader reinforced explanations for the subject. However, I do feel that the author possibly tried to cover too broad a wingspan of information here. I know as a reader I could see this information being separated and represented in even as few as three complete readings or even more by focusing on one angle at a time presented in this reading.
In the end, after having read all of the information in the article, “What is Crime against Humanity,” I feel that the great dichotomy or oxymoron found inherently within attempting to of combine “humaneness” with that of “war” have in themselves created a confusion that neither logic nor discussion can unravel easily if at all. As for this particular piece on the subject, I honestly have to say for the most part it left me more perplexed on the subject.
- Vernon, R. (2002). What is Crime against Humanity. The Journal of Political Philosophy, 10:3, 231-249