Exploring the Concept of Just War


Since the beginning of civilization, the world has advanced significantly becoming one web of interconnected nations depending on each other for various sociopolitical and economic reasons. Countries have formed allies for different reasons including military support, promotion of trade, and unification to advance a certain course among other related aspects. Additionally, with the formation of the League of Nations after World War II, which changed into the United Nations (UN), leaders in various countries have to govern their people and related with other nations in a certain manner for the promotion of global peace (Keohane 130). Therefore, a threat to one region of the world might mean a threat to allies, hence the need to intervene and solve any underlying problems.

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This assertion underscores the concept of just wars – the theory that war, despite being terrible with adverse outcomes in terms of death, violation of human rights, and collateral damage (mainly innocent people), could be justified. It is the notion that at times, war is the only available means of resolving conflicts that if left unaddressed, would degenerate into widespread negative outcomes, such as genocide, extensive abuse of human rights, and a threat to world peace. This paper seeks to understand the concept of just wars from the standpoint of international law using five wars – China attacking Vietnam in 1979, the Falkland War of 1982, the deposition of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, and the attack of ISIL in Syria by the US and Russia between 2016 and 2018.

China Attacking Vietnam in 1979

The Chinese-Vietnam War of 1979, which is commonly known as the Third Indochina War, occurred after Vietnam invaded Cambodia and Laos following a border dispute that had lasted for several years (Tretiak 740). However, the war was not the last alternative available to China because there were other possibilities to avoid the war. First, China had no justifiable reason to attack Vietnam for invading Cambodia and Laos. The Beijing regime felt threatened by the increasing influence of the Soviets in the region, and thus when Vietnam attacked Cambodia and ousted pro-Beijing Pol Pot’s regime, China retaliated.

China violated all the principles of a just war, especially the requirement for a justifiable cause. It only went into Vietnam to punish it, which is not part of the Jus ad Bellum doctrine of a just war (Kamm 650). Nevertheless, even if China was justified to attack Vietnam, I think it could have pursued other means; hence, the war was not the last option. First, it could have initiated a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Cambodia and mediate with Vietnam in the interest of restoring peace. It could also have sanctioned the UN to intervene, but the war was a power game, thus negotiation would not have achieved the admired results.

The war was launched by legitimate authority in the sense that China is an organized state with systems that ensure checks and balances. However, from a different perspective, China was not a legitimate authority in this case. It was expecting Vietnam to uphold justice and withdraw from Cambodia, while it could not restrain itself from starting a war that could have the same consequences as what it was fighting. In this sense, China lacked the moral authority to attack Vietnam; hence, it was an illegitimate authority.

This war was started to redress a wrongful act – Vietnam had unjustifiably invaded Cambodia and Laos, which was the wrong recourse within international relations. Countries are expected to uphold ethics and respect other nations’ sovereignty (Krasner 20). The UN was formed specifically to mediate the resolution of conflicts between nations without armed confrontation. As such, Vietnam was wrong to attack Cambodia, and thus China thought it could address the situation by starting a war, albeit it had other hidden agenda of asserting its influence in the region by sending an implicit message to the Soviets that it was ready to defend its interests.

The Third Indochina War did not establish or re-establish peace in Cambodia and Laos. China failed to compel Vietnam to leave Cambodia. The illegal occupation of Cambodia continued for almost a decade, and thus the war did not achieve any immediately positive results. However, it should be remembered that the objective of the war was not to restore peace but to assert China’s authority in the region and repulse the influence of the Soviets.

In the end, the China-Vietnam War of 1979 was not justifiable. China did not meet any conditions for a just war because it did not have excusable reason to attack Vietnam, and from an international relations perspective, it was not a legitimate authority for such an undertaking. Additionally, I think other means of addressing the Vietnam-Cambodia conflict were available, thus China did not necessarily have to start a war.

The Falkland War of 1982

On April 2, 1982, Argentine military forces invaded and took control of the Falkland Islands, and the British authorities retaliated in an armed confrontation that lasted for over ten weeks. In this case, the war was the last alternative for the British – in fact, it was the only available option. The Falkland Islands had been a British protectorate for over a century, and thus the invasion and occupation by Argentina was a direct violation of the islands’ sovereignty, which to some extent doubled as British sovereignty. Countries under the threat of an enemy who violates their sovereignty do not seek legal or peaceful redress. An act of war is responded with an equal measure of force as the British did to the Argentine forces. Therefore, this was a just war as it met the conditions of such a confrontation.

In addition, a legitimate authority launched the war. According to Bluth, war can only be “justified as an act of political justice undertaken by those who have been given the responsibility to care for the common good of the community, and clearly, the British Government constituted a legitimate authority internationally recognized as such” (9). The British had occupied the islands for a long time, and the local population wanted to remain under British sovereignty. Bluth gives the following reasons to legitimize the authority of the British and justify the war:

  1. British territory had been seized
  2. The right to self-determination of the inhabitants of this territory had been usurped
  3. The principles of international law must be upheld, in particular, the principle that force must not be used for the resolution of disputes (except in self-defense) (law enforcement (9).

Therefore, the British government was justified to start the war as a legitimate authority.

This war was started to redress a wrongful, specifically armed aggression by Argentina on the Falkland Islands. However, from the Argentinian perspective, it was not invading a sovereign region; on the contrary, it was defending its sovereignty. Argentina claimed that the Falklands Islands were part of its territory, which the British had forcefully taken many years ago. As such, its invasion was not an act of war, but a legitimate effort to reclaim what it had lost. Nevertheless, this claim is debatable because the arguments behind Argentina’s reasons for its actions could not be verified.

The war re-established peace in the Falkland Islands with the defeat of the Argentinian forces and its subsequent withdrawal from the region on June 14, 1982. I think that based on the available evidence, the citizens of the Falkland Islands favored their continued stay as a protectorate of the British Empire. In addition, Bluth claims that the majority of the populations on the islands had a British bloodline (7). Therefore, the invasion by Argentina was against the wish of the locals, which violated their sovereignty and threatened their peaceful existence. As such, I believe that the immediate retaliation by the British was warranted as it restored peace in the region.

In conclusion, Argentina invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands in 1982 on the pretext that it was reclaiming part of its lost territories. However, the British retaliated immediately and resorted to ordering. I opine that this war was just as it met all the underlying principles of a just war. For instance, the British had a justifiable cause to start the war, and it was a legitimate authority, in this case.

International Coalition against Libya in 2011

Operation Unified Protector is used to describe the US-led war against Libyan president, Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The genesis of this war is the Libyan revolution whereby the locals wanted a regime change and the creation of democratic space in the country for people to have the power to choose their leaders. However, the government countered the revolution violently, violating almost all human rights that exist in the modern world. In August, Operation Unified Protector was launched, and in the next few months, NATO-supported rebels engaged the government in armed conflict, which ended in the killing of Muammar Gaddafi on October 20, 2011.

I think this war was the last available option for the US and other world leaders in addressing the Libyan conflict. The US and its allied had tried a wide range of measures to compel Gaddafi to consider his hard-stance position concerning governance in the country. Sanctions were put in place and his assets were frozen. However, in the midst of the conflict, Gaddafi warned the rebels, “We will come house by house, room by room…We will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity” (Wedgwood and Dorn 344). Therefore, with such threats to citizens, the US had no alternative but to launch a war.

This war was launched by a legitimate authority, which is NATO, under the sanction of the United Nations Security Council. The world has the moral obligation to intervene in cases where people are under the threat of their governments, especially in the presence of the violation of human rights. As such, the UN Security Council was the legitimate authority in this case because, without its intervention, Libyans staging a revolution agitating for a democratic regime would have been killed in masses by the authoritarian regime at the time.

The war was meant to redress a wrongful act, specifically profound violence against rebels in Libya. Gaddafi’s regime had resorted to wanton killing of its citizens for wanting a change of governance from despotism to democracy as part of progress and political maturity in the country. However, instead of engaging in a peaceful process and negotiations, Gaddafi opted for violence and extensive infringement of human rights. This problem had to be addressed, and the war seemed the only viable option at the time.

The war in Libya, unfortunately, did not establish or re-establish peace in the country in my view. The country currently lies in ruins due to the failure to form a stable government. Wedgwood and Dorn argue that after “the 2011 civil war ended, the international community did not show the same effort and commitment to secure the peace as it did during the conflict. A postbellum assessment of international actions would show some major flaws” (357). Different factions continue to wage war against each other and, in terms of economic wellbeing, social progress, and peace, the country is worse off than it was before the war.

I believe that the Libyan war of 2011 was justified because it passed the just war threshold. Gaddafi was attacking and violently killing innocent protestors, and even after a serial of warnings from international players, he ignored every one of them and vowed to continue subjugating his people through a dictatorship. However, from a postbellum perspective, the war was a failure (Williams and Caldwell 310). It did not restore peace in the country, which is currently characterized by armed conflict between the government and rebels.

Russian Occupation of Crimea in 2014

The annexation of Crimea to Russia in 2014 was due to unrest in the region following the ouster of the then Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, in a widespread and violent revolution. The deposing of a democratically elected president left Ukraine without definite leadership, and Crimea slipped into chaos (Mankoff 61). Specifically, pro-Russian protestors occupied the streets, calling for the annexation of the region. Ultimately, on February 23, 2014, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, decided to invade Crimea and annex it to Russia. I think that the war was not the last alternative available for Russia in addressing the Crimean problem. A democratically elected president had just been ousted, and thus for the sake of stability in the region, Russia should have pursued other options, such as supporting the Ukrainian government to restore stability. It could also have partnered with other allies in international peace and come up with a sustainable solution to the Crimean issue.

On the one hand, it could be argued that Russia was a legitimate authority to intervene in Crimea, especially based on its claims that the region is part of its territory. The underlying argument is that Crimea was Russian territory, but it had erroneously been assigned to Ukraine during the breakup of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, Russia had no moral or legal obligation to annex Crimea. Coynash and Charron state, “Ascribing innate belonging of a territory to a particular state because of its demographics relies on an essentialist logic concerning the relationship between ethnicity, territory, and nationhood” (29). Therefore, Russia was an illegitimate authority to attack Crimea based on the foregoing assertions.

This war was not started to redress any wrongful act. There was no imminent danger facing the Crimean people after the deposition of Viktor Yanukovych. It is true that the region got into chaos following the Ukrainian revolution and the ultimate ouster of the sitting president. However, the social disorder was not restricted to Crimea alone as the entire Ukraine was in the same state. The government that took over from Yanukovych would have addressed the underlying problems and restored order in the region. As such, Russia had no meaningful role to play in the restoration of order in Crimea.

This war established peace in Crimea because the region was ultimately annexed to Russia. However, the peace and order being experienced in Crimea are not based on mutual understanding and agreement by the involved parties. Russia continues to use repressive tactics to silence those opposed to the annexation. According to Coynash and Charron, Russia employs various underhand techniques, such as the sentencing of Crimean Tatars and frequent armed raids of “homes, mosques, religious centers, and other establishments as part of a repressive campaign against Islamic “extremism” and the spread of more traditional forms of Islam prohibited by the state” (44-45). Therefore, true peace has not been achieved in the region.

The invasion of Crimea by Russia and the subsequent annexation in 2014 is a good example of an unjust war. Russia did not have any justifiable reason to attack and annex Crimea from Ukraine. People in Crimea were not in any danger to warrant the invasion by another country. The region currently experiences superficial peace attained through repressive tactics by the Russian government targeting those against the annexation.

Russia and the United States Attacking ISIL’s Positions in Syria in 2016-2018

Syria was the last country to experience the Arab Revolution that started in Tunisia in 2011. The country has descended into a civil war with three parties involved – the Syrian government, the opposition, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The latter is a terrorist group masquerading as part of the legitimate opposition, and its presence in the country has prompted the intervention by Russia and the US. The issue of terrorism in the modern world is an existential threat to humanity, and interestingly, terrorists can “move freely within our society while actively working to subvert it” (Lind et al. 24). Therefore, the Russian and American war against ISIL in Syria and neighboring territories was the last alternative available – in retrospect, it could be said it was the only option. Countries cannot afford to negotiate with terrorists whose main agenda is to unleash terror and cause chaos.

The US and Russia are legitimate authorities to start this war. In the fight against terrorism, any organized government has the unquestionable authority to attack these insurgents and ensure world peace. Therefore, despite the controversies surrounding the involvement of Russia and the US in the Syrian conflict, the two world powers have a common enemy in ISIL, and they have the legitimate authority to wage war against terrorism.

The war against ISIL in Syria was started to redress the threat of terrorism that ISIL poses to the entire world. Davis et al. argue that terrorism is a trans-regional problem, and thus its existence in one place of the world is a threat to the entire globe (1). Therefore, the war against ISIL is justifiable because it meets all the requirements of a just war.

The US and Russian war on terrorism, specifically against ISIL in Syria has not yielded peace in the region. The country is deeply divided, and it is currently under a long-standing civil war without the probability of finding a solution. As Cordesman and Nerguizian posit, “Today’s Syria is a divided mess with no clear options for security and stability. Diplomacy shows no real signs of producing a lasting ceasefire, much less anything approaching a viable political and economic solution” (3). Peace is likely to remain elusive in the region in the near future due to the complicated nature of the crisis.

I believe that the US and Russian war against ISIL in Syria is a just war. There is an urgent need to defend the world from the ravages of terrorism and any country in a position to help should do so without hesitation. The US and Russia, as global leaders, are legitimate authorities in the war against terrorism in Syria. However, the war has not restored or established peace in the country.


The concept of just war holds that in some cases, war, despite being inhumane and retrogressive, is the only viable means of achieving peace and protecting human rights. This paper has shown that some wars are justifiable using examples of armed conflicts that have occurred in contemporary times. On the one hand, the Falkland Island War of 1982, the NATO-led war on Gaddafi in Libya, and the war against ISIL in Syria under the leadership of Russia and the US are all examples of just wars. On the other hand, the Third Indochina War of 1979 and the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea are unjust wars. The difference between just and unjust wars is determined by various factors, as discussed in this paper.

Works Cited

Bluth, Christoph. “The British Resort to Force in the Falklands/Malvinas Conflict 1982: International Law and Just War Theory.” Journal of Peace Research, vol. 24, no. 1, 1987, pp. 5-20.

Cordesman, Anthony, and Aram Nerguizian. “The Case for and Against a “Realist” Strategy in Syria.” Center for Strategic International Studies, 2017, pp. 1-12.

Coynash, Halya, and Austin Charron. “Russian-Occupied Crimea and the State of Exception: Repression, Persecution, and Human Rights Violations.” Eurasian Geography and Economics, vol. 60, no.1, 2019, pp. 28-53.

Davis, Lynn, et al. A Strategy to Counter ISIL as Transregional Threat. RAND, 2017.

Kamm, Frances. “Failures of Just War Theory: Terror, Harm, and Justice.” Ethics, vol. 114, no. 4, 2004, pp. 650-692.

Keohane, Robert. “Twenty Years of Institutional Liberalism.” International Relations, vol. 26, no. 2, 2012, pp. 125-138.

Krasner, Stephen. “Sovereignty.” Foreign Policy, no. 122, 2001, pp. 20-29.

Lind, William, et al. “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation.” Marine Corps Gazette, 1989, pp. 22-26.

Mankoff, Jeffrey. “Russia’s Latest Land Grab: How Putin Won Crimea and Lost Ukraine.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 93, 2014, pp. 60-68.

Tretiak, Daniel. “China’s Vietnam War and its Consequences.” The China Quarterly, vol. 80, 1979, pp. 740-767.

Wedgwood, Andrew, and Walter Dorn. “NATO’s Libya Campaign 2011: Just or Unjust to What Degree?” Diplomacy & Statecraft, vol. 26, no.2, 2015, pp. 341-362.

Williams, Robert, and Dan Caldwell. “Jus Post Bellum: Just War Theory and the Principles of Just Peace.” International Studies Perspectives, vol. 7, no. 4, 2006, pp. 309-320.

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