Love Not the Sword for its Sharpness: Arms Control and Just War

This presentation is derived from a chapter of my masters thesis, which studies the disarmament work of Canadian NGO Project Ploughshares. I delivered it at an internal colloquium in March 2017. The audio recording can be found here, although it’s a little off…partially due to my struggles with my powerpoint presentation.

On February 14, 2015, Ed Fast, the former Canadian Minister of International Trade, helped announce the largest advanced manufacturing contract in Canadian history. The 14-year, multi-billion dollar deal promised to directly benefit 500 Canadian companies, and continue an important trade alliance with a strategic partner. The only catch was that the deal was to manufacture a military weapons system, Light Armored Vehicles (LAVs), and the ‘strategic partner’ was the repressive theocracy of Saudi Arabia.

Many Canadian organizations and individuals spoke out against this deal. They used a variety of arguments for arms control measures, all grounded in the basic idea that selling LAVs to Saudi Arabia was in violation of the Canadian national ethic, that Saudi Arabia does not do war justly, and that the kingdom does not respect the laws of conflict, including human rights.

At the root of this criticism of the LAV deal is this idea that war does have rules, and that other nations beside Canada should follow those rules. This reflects an ideology of war that has been evolving for more than 2000 years – and has become known as the just war tradition. Within this ideology, certain actions (such as the use of LAVs on civilians) are inherently unjust, and just actors have a responsibility to restrain other actors who engage in injustice.

Today I’m going to forge a link between arms control (defined as efforts to control the weapons and means of warfare) and the longstanding historical just war tradition. To understand the discourse around the current Canada–Saudi arms deal, it is therefore important to understand something of how arms control has been historically linked to these two traditions.

The methods of arms control are varied. Sometimes arms control has been a punishment imposed upon the conquered by the victorious, at other times it has been a means of limiting the costs of preparing for and waging war. Sometimes it has been a mechanism mutually negotiated by competing powers to maintain a status quo. More recently, arms control has been adapted to global conventions to protect human survival and limit the potential for destabilizing military escalations or conflicts.

The larger purpose of arms control is to create and promote security.[1] Historically, this has often manifested as promoting the security of one state or community at the expense of others, but occasionally bilateral agreements were used by primitive societies to limit the lethality of war, or preserve their collective military tradition against destabilizing weapons. Of course, as concepts of ‘security’ have expanded in the last few centuries, so too have arms control measures.

The concept of arms control has been around almost as long as people have fought each other. Which is obviously a very long time. Early examples of arms control measures included an agreement among ancient Pacific Islander communities to use clubs and stones, rather than more deadly spears, in battle, and a prohibition on barbed, poisonous, and flaming projectiles in the ancient Hindu Book of Manu. Security concerns also motivated a series of bans in medieval Europe on weapons such as the crossbow, that threatened the dominance of mounted and armoured nobility in battle. Japanese elites of the mid-seventeenth century were remarkably successful in preserving the sanctity of the warrior class by restricting the use of firearms in Japan until the mid-nineteenth centurie.[2] These arms control measures were introduced to preserve the status quo, despite the potential advantages such weapons might have provided in battle.

In other circumstances, arms control measures were imposed by the victorious upon the conquered to enhance their security. The Egyptians and the Hittites established a neutral region between their areas of influence following the Battle of Qadesh (c. 1280 BCE) as a form of arms control, and Sparta imposed harsh terms on defeated Athens in 404 BCE that included the destruction of its defensive walls and much of its fleet.[3] The Romans imposed arms restrictions and heavy financial reparations upon defeated foes as the penalty for war, and to limit their ability to rebuild militarily.

Arms control measures could also manifest as prohibitions on attacking certain groups within society (religious figures, farmers, women, etc) or against violence during certain days or religious events. The medieval Roman Catholic Church in the tenth and eleventh centuries introduced the Peace of God and Truce of God, which harnessed the Christian just war tradition, Roman law, and the code of chivalry to restrict inter-Christian violence despite the fragmentation of European political authority.

The motive of all of these arms control measures was security. Security for the community, or the state, or even the region. Yet it is essential to recognize that these measures were justified and articulated through the ethical and martial traditions of the societies that created them. In the west, the usage of arms control to limit inter-Christian warfare, punish the defeated, and outlaw certain weapons, has been articulated through the tradition of the just war. What is the just war tradition? Well, let’s talk about it.

The western just war tradition arguably began with the Greeks, was interpreted through the Roman philosopher Cicero, and fused to early Christianity by Augustine of Hippo. Later, Thomas Aquinas formulated the most famous definition of the just war. He argued that the right to war (jus ad bellum) has three major components: legitimate authority, just cause, and right intention. All three components continue to be used to the justification of war to this day, although “just cause” tends to factor more prominently than “legitimate authority” or the rather ambiguous “right intention”.

A series of early modern scholars, beginning with Francisco de Vitoria and Francisco Suarez in the sixteenth century, and continuing through the work of Hugo Grotius, worked to merge concepts of just war with fledgling ideas of international law, creating the basis for much of the legal framework used at the UN today.

Vitoria and his protégé Suarez added several secondary criteria to Aquinas’ definition of just war, arguing that concepts of proportionality, war as a last resort, and chance of success needed to be considered when sovereigns were contemplating war. Grotius, even more so than Vitoria or Suarez, emphasized jus in bello requirements, or how to wage a just war once it is started, over jus ad bellum justifications, the criteria necessary to initiative a just war. In doing this, Grotius foresaw the future proliferation of conflicts where no side could honestly claim that they met the just war standards for entering a conflict. This reformulation of the just war tradition as primarily a military code of conduct led to a new emphasis on arms control measures as ways to enforce the tradition.

Of course, in addition to changes in the philosophical reflection on war, war itself was also evolving. The French revolutionary wars transformed the nature of European warfare, abolishing what is known as the “limited war” tradition, and beginning the modern conception of “total war.” The new lethality and scope of warfare led to the development of international legal and political structures to provide alternative types of conflict resolution and restrict warfare where possible.

The development of nuclear weapons has had perhaps the largest effect upon the just war tradition in the 20th century. The “nuclear option” has dramatically changed the calculus of warfare, and continues to push the tradition’s purpose towards limiting conflict rather than punishing injustice. Nuclear weapons (as well as certain devastating conventional weapons) violate jus in bello criteria, specifically proportionality, discrimination, and chance of success. The long-lasting environmental effects of nuclear weapons also violate a suggested third category of the just war tradition, ius post bellum  or “justice after warfare.”

Of course, nuclear weapons have also had an effect upon ius ad bellum criteria. Many of the arms control measures of the 20th century were designed to prevent the proliferation, production and stockpiling of nuclear weapons because of the disproportionate threat of such devices to the international system. The possession of such weapons (and even the capacity to produce them) became such a strategic threat that it was occasionally used to justify a “defensive” strike from another nuclear power.

In this sense, a state’s capacity for violence (as indicated by the technology and weapons it possesses) has increasingly become the basis for intervention against that state in a globalized system. David Mutimer writes of this “securitization” of weapons proliferation in his book The Weapons State, arguing that, especially since the Gulf War, developed Western nations have seen the proliferation of weapons and technology to developing countries as just cause for interventions to protect the international system and status quo. This proliferation construct does not apply only to nuclear technology, but also to biological, chemical, and even conventional arms if accumulated in “destabilizing” numbers. In summary, arms control measures have become increasingly important as the arms they seek to control have become increasingly common and destructive.

The mid-20th century “Rights Revolution” and reinterpretation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) have also had a significant effect on the rhetoric of arms control. IHL argues the importance of globalization, and attempts to delink concepts of legitimate authority from the state system. This branch of just war (begun in the work of Grotius) has led proponents of globalization to argue that traditional national security concerns are largely irrelevant in a globalized world, geography is no longer a defence against the consequences of instability, and that national security must be redefined as “human security” to reflect the increasing importance of the individual as compared to the state. The pursuit of human security now constitutes “just cause” for warfare, and “legitimate authority” has been vested in international actors, wielding “right intentions” codified in international humanitarian law.

The focus on human security was a significant element of both UN and Canadian policy in the 1990s.  It combined the “securitization” of non-violent threats to global stability (poverty, economic exploitation, female disempowerment, lack of education, etc.) with a base understanding that people should enjoy both a “freedom from want” and a “freedom from fear.” The triumphs of human security and IHL in the 1990s included the criminal tribunals in both Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, as well as the formation of the International Criminal Court. In practice, human security is the application of law and legalism to global politics though the fulfillment of the UN’s original role as mediator and enforcer of the international system.

The human security turn in international law has had significant impact upon the rhetoric and aim of arms control since the end of the Cold War. Although the underlying principles hearken back to the criteria of proportionality and discrimination in the just war tradition, the “securitization” of proliferation has heightened scrutiny of the trade in all types of weapons and technologies. Calls for stricter controls on arms transfers, especially to regions where human rights have been violated, have formed part of the momentum behind initiatives like the Ottawa Process, the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons, as well as the recent UN Arms Trade Treaty and Ottawa Process.

In summary, the human security turn has created three significant changes to the arms control construct.  First of all, it has securitized a diverse series of issues and linked them to international systems beyond the jurisdiction or control of any one state. Arms control conventions in the age of human security must therefore also be multilateral, international agreements with an increasing diversity of aims.

Second, human security concerns transcend traditional jus in bello criteria of proportionality and discrimination, and therefore weapons that arguably satisfy these original criteria can still become the subject of arms control initiatives when they are sold to repressive regimes.

Third, the universal right to “freedom from want” within the human security paradigm has created discussion surrounding the economic impact of the arms trade, in terms of its cost to developing states, its division between Northern “supplier” states and Southern “consumer” states, and its ability to destabilize regional power structures.

While the ideas and initiatives of the human security paradigm are a radical departure from the state-centric ideologies of most of the twentieth century, they rely on a system of international law that springs from the just war tradition. This law has been renovated and expanded, but it still fundamentally requires polities to justify both their decisions to go to war, and the actions taken during and after wartime, against a universal moral standard.

The just war is now the primary way in which the dominant (western) apparatus of international law, the U.N., as well as individual state polities, frame modern war. Although this does not preserve the tradition from hypocrisy and cheap justifications for war, it does provide a means and language for the wider population to evaluate and criticize the decisions of their governments. As just war scholar Michael Walzer has argued, in the post-Vietnam era, “justice has become a military necessity.”[4]

Weapons and tactics have also adapted to meet resurgent requirements of just war. The American bombing campaigns of the Gulf War were far more selective than those in Vietnam, and the strikes of Afghanistan and Iraq were more “surgical” still. Today the U.S. military has poured significant resources into developing “smart” weapons that minimize civilian casualties sometimes even reducing the size of the explosive charge to prevent collateral damage. As well, the American military has created sophisticated algorithmic models to estimate noncombatant risk while planning missions. To summarize, the “triumph” of just war means its criteria are now being considered as part of weapon research and development.

In Canada, the criticisms of the Saudi–LAV deal consistently assume a moral foundation for warfare that can be violated by the proliferation and use of certain weapons. Many Canadians, therefore, see the manufacture, sale, or use of certain weapons (or to certain countries) as violations of a moral framework founded in just war thought, and melded with a concern for human rights. They also see the proliferation of weapons as a destabilizing violation of global security and safety, and argue that arms control is part of the responsibility of legitimate authority to defend human security around the world.  This rhetoric is the result of a 2000-year old discussion on war and ethics which has attempted to create an ideological framework through which war, weapons, and even arms export deals, can be classified as just or unjust, right or wrong.


I'm a graduate student at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. I used to be a journalist, and I moonlight as a sports writer/church intern/LOTR nerd.

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