In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Just War

  • Introduction
  • Just War Theory’s Vibrancy in Modern Statecraft
  • Just War Theory’s Application in the Modern Era

International Law Just War
Howard Hensel, Eric Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0187


The concept of just war can be seen as an implicit framework for analysis or series of questions within the context of which just war criteria can subsequently be established. Consciously or unconsciously, various Western and non-Western philosophers, theologians, and policymakers have individually or collectively used all or some of the elements inherent within this implicit framework of analysis and attempted to address the inherent questions—thereby explicitly establishing their own individual criteria for the legitimate use of armed force. Consequently, depending in large measure on such political and cultural considerations as ideology and religion, there is a wide variety of definitions and criteria concerning what constitutes “just war.” Regarding the decision to resort to the use of armed force in the resolution of conflicts (jus ad bellum), the implicit categories of analysis or questions are: first, what are the characteristics of the “peace” that is sought; second, what individuals or institutions have the authority to authorize the use of armed force in the conflict resolution process; third, what are the intentions of the authorities who authorize the use of force as an instrument of policy; fourth, what constitutes “just cause” in determining whether to use force; fifth, must all nonviolent means be exhausted before resorting to the use of force; sixth, is it necessary to announce the intention to use force prior to its initiation and, if so, what form should that announcement take; seventh, are the benefits of the peace that is sought greater than the anticipated human and material costs associated with the use of armed force; eighth, must there be a “realistic prospect of victory”; and, finally, do all the above questions or categories of analysis need to be properly addressed for the use of force to be justifiable? There are three categories of analysis or questions to be addressed concerning the considerations governing the actual application of armed force (jus in bello). First, are those planning or actively engaging in military operations and tactical encounters with the adversary motivated by “right intentions”; second, what criteria do the aforementioned individuals use to determine what constitutes legitimate combatants or military targets, as opposed to noncombatants and civilian objects; and third, in planning and executing military operations and tactical encounters, will the collateral damage to civilian objects and injury or death to noncombatants, as well as the anticipated casualties to combatants, be “excessive” or “disproportionate” compared with the operational or tactical gains that are expected? Finally, the implicit categories of analysis following the conclusion of hostilities (jus post bellum) focus on the “justice” of the policies of the victorious power vis-à-vis the defeated adversary.

Mainstream Western Perspectives Regarding Just War

The body of mainstream Western perspectives concerning the legitimate use of armed force are often collectively characterized as the Western “just war tradition.” Many scholars see the just war criteria that gradually developed within the context of this tradition as the central point of reference against which alternative Western and non-Western ethical viewpoints and resultant criteria regarding the legitimate use of armed force are compared and evaluated.

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