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Last Updated: 07/07/2008
A World Without War
Varghese Theckanath

Human Rights Law remains an essential tool in the effort to minimize suffering in war, and stand up for justice in the face of overwhelming injustice. Still, as Theckanath points out, we should not lose sight of the larger struggle: to eradicate war completely.

A picture of  women and children ensconced in a deep trench peering into the sky with fear and hope etched on their faces, reminded me of the heart rending Ann Frank’s Diary that I read some years ago. Certainly one of the most enduring documents of the twentieth century, the book is a testament to the indestructible nature of the human spirit. It is also about war. And the different actors who are caught in its warp, not the least of whom are women and children compelled to endure hunger and thirst, indignity and humiliation, suffering and death.

Ann Frank and millions like her who perished in the Great War did not enjoy the protection of the “Laws of War” (jus in bello) that International Humanitarian Law embodies today.  In the heat of war the cardinal principle of proportionality was thrown to the winds by the Axis and the Allied forces alike.  Humane treatment of individuals, whether civilian or military, a central issue of IHL today hardly merited attention. People like Ann Frank did not have protection from the crime of genocide that took the lives of millions of innocent people.

This is not to say that laws governing war did not already exist. But the scale of their violations was sufficient to bring nations of all hues together to codify laws that govern armed conflicts of every nature. They assumed that the sweep of these laws covering every aspect of conflicts and actors in them, will remove all ambiguity. The large number of ratifications to the Geneva Conventions and (less so of) Additional Protocols indicate the general consensus among nations on these laws.

It is one thing to have laws in place, but quite another to adhere to them during conflicts. Their interpretations and justifications can vary. The recent controversy regarding Blackwater shootings is an example of the type of ambivalence that still exist in the implementation of jus in bello. The “rights” versus “security” debate in the “war on terrorism” further exemplify the dilemma. The mute question is whether “war on terror” is the direction of conflicts in future, and if so, will we need new laws?

An even more fundamental question than “How to wage war? is, “Why we wage war in the first place?

Clausewitz, a philosophizing Prussian military officer stated that war is diplomacy carried on by other means. As Toynbee analyzed, “the statement ignores the ethical difference between discussion for the sake of agreement and a physical trial of strength in which a conflict of interests or a difference of views is settled by brute force.” In truth, war is the ultimate failure of diplomacy. It may be true that war has sometimes settled disputes that diplomacy could not, but the price of such settlements has been creation of new problems. History shows that settlement of disputes by war is seldom satisfactory.

The fifth century B.C. Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that war is the father of all things. This brings us to the economic relations of war.  In a state of war all resources of a country are mobilized. It becomes the stimulus for economic and technological development. However, a war based economy is the costliest among many alternative possible economic stimuli we have today.  Hence it is not the most desirable. We have to look for alternatives to expend our best energies. Global warming, diseases of epidemic proportions, a just world economic order, and cultivating the “spiritual” that endows humankind with a sense of the transcendent, are problems and goals that cannot be postponed.

We need to create a world that does not engender the despair poured out by young Ann in her famous dairy. Nor the agony of incessant bombings reflected in the faces of women and children sheltered in a trench. If this is to happen we need visionaries, prophets and philosophers of peace who can capture the imagination of the world, and influence its behavior and laws.  Dunant and ICRC have done so with great aplomb in the last many decades. It is our turn now. As Ann Frank noted in her diary one morning, “We have many reasons to hope for great happiness, but…we have to earn it.  And that is something you can’t do by taking the easy way out. Earning happiness means doing good and working…”  Indeed, we have to work incessantly…. for a world without war.

Varghese Theckanath holds a Master's degree from the University for Peace.