Can wars ever be just or are wars merely justifiable?: The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo

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By: Louise Boshab

The concepts of justice and injustice are not effective in defining war in an objective manner but on the other hand easily bring on a subjective understanding of war among populations, which will then influence either their opposition or their support of war (Gaoshan 280).

In a lecture at the Carnegie Council, David Rodin of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict addresses the issue of the ethics of war and conflict, and caused me to reflect upon what makes a war just. I will explore the ideas of justified and unjustified wars discussed in Rodin’s talk through the example of the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One of the initial reasons behind the intermittent conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo taking place since 1997 has to do with the status of the Banyarwanda—Congolese people of Rwandan descent—and of the Congolese Tutsi within Congolese society. The strong anti-Rwandan feelings that existed before the war only grew worse.

In African Affairs, author Filip Reyntjens attributes this deterioration of relationships between ethnic groups to the behavior of the Banyarwanda and Congolese Tutsi towards the general population. Reyntjens explains that “local populations were harassed, insulted and humiliated; the ‘liberators’ seized household appliances, communication equipment, cars, cattle and houses” (243). He then adds: “already by the end of 1996, a number of organizations and movements started to emerge whose stated objective was to fight ‘Tutsi hegemonism’ and which used violent anti-Tutsi language” (243). This illustrates how the ideas of justice and injustice are greatly intertwined with the concept of war. However how can we determine what would make the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo morally justifiable? Can we determine if that war could be considered a just war?

Conflict whose main root causes includes—among others—tribalism and tensions between various ethnic groups, a utilitarian might deem that freedom from the hegemony of a certain group—in this case from the Banyarwanda—which would in the process bring about the reestablishment of justice is an outcome so valuable to the common good that going to war is justified in order to achieve it. In this utilitarian context, because of one’s awareness that war in itself is not a just endeavor, and therefore not a good endeavor, the war in eastern Congo needs to be treated as a mere means to get to the greater good, which is in that case freedom from invasion.

This idea of war as a means to the achievement of a greater good, which is in this case freedom from hegemony, is also present in The Ethics of War when author Charles F. Down explains, “it does not follow from all this […] that war should be regarded as good in itself. Volumes might be filled with an account of the benefits which man derives from his experiences of pain, but it does not follow that pain is itself good” (3). The examples drawn from John Stuart Mill’s theory of utilitarianism and those taken from the book Ethics of War all illustrate how and why while the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo would be deemed morally justifiable from a philosophical standpoint, and in particular from a utilitarian point of view, the act of war in itself remains unjust. It can be inferred that from a utilitarian standpoint, while war is justifiable and sometimes even deemed necessary, it will never be considered to be just.

Ethics of war focus on under which conditions one is allowed to resort to the use of force. Ethics of war refer at their core to the right to resort to war, which is also known as Jus ad bellum, and are mainly concerned with the nature of war and with the idea of just war. Gaoshan Zuo explains in “Just War and justice of war: Reflections on ethics of war” that just war is composed of six different factors: legitimate reason (or just reason), legal authority, legitimate purpose, chance of success, proportionality, and last resort (281).

According to Zuo, legitimate reason is the chief principle of just war. He then adds: “from Kant’s perspective, free nations maintain the right to start a war. They exert this right to create social conditions enabling the pursuit of universal legal institutions in civil society.” These nations that wish to engage in warfare must however have a good reason in order to justify the serious consequences caused by war (Zuo 281). Zuo later on introduces the idea that there are two legitimate reasons for a nation or population to engage in war: self-defense and self-preservation (282).

Another reason that justifies war from an ethics of war point of view has to do with legal authorization, which is another major component for conducting a just war. Zuo explains that, “legal authorization means that private entities may not declare war, only governing bodies have the authority […] in view of legal principles, just war and legitimate war are the same” (283). In the case of the war in eastern Congo, the fact that the war had been officially declared by the government and therefore made legitimate proves its justifiability from an ethics of war perspective.

Zuo clarifies the standing of just war in this ethical context when he states: “one typical feature of wars in [the] twentieth century is that people […] used the concept of justice of war to prove that a just war had occurred. Logically speaking, however, the reasons behind a war cannot prove that it was a legitimate war” (284). He then adds: “war maintains an independent identity. And therefore it is important to reflect upon the nature of war as a means, regardless of its objective” (285). This confirmed the idea raised when analyzing the conflict in Congo from a philosophical standpoint, that although war is justifiable, the act of war in itself remains unjust.

From the standpoint of ethics of war, a conflict such as the ongoing one occurring in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo would be deemed to be justifiable because it fills the criteria of war for a just reason and of legitimate war. On the other hand, in this ethical context as well we find ourselves not able to attribute any just qualities to the act of war, because war needs to preserve its independent identity.

Louise Boshab is completing her M.A. in Ethics & Society at Fordham University.

Works Cited

Alley, Garrett. Barkley, Julie. “What Utilitarianism is.” Utilitarianism. John Stuart Mill. Project Gutenberg Ebook 2004. Web. 20 November 2015.

Down, Charles F “The Ethics of War”. The Irish Church Quarterly 8.29 (1915): 1–10. Web 23 November 2015.

Reyntjens, Filip. “Briefing: The Second Congo War: More Than a Remake”. African. Affairs 98.391 (1999): 241–250. Web 22 November 2015.

ZUO, Gaoshan, and Xi Yunpeng. “Just War and Justice of War: Reflections on Ethics of War”. Frontiers of Philosophy in China 2.2 (2007): 280–290. Web 23 November 2015.



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