This week, American and Russian diplomats have been trading insults, accusing each other of barbaric behaviour. Referring to the fighting in Aleppo, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Powers, said that, ‘what Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counter-terrorism, it is barbarism.’ In reply, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mariia Zakharova stated that, ‘the world has seen nothing more barbaric in modern history than Iraq and Libya done the Washington way.’
The two diplomats were speaking past each other. Powers was commenting on alleged breaches of the laws dictating what people can do during a war – jus in bello. Zakharova was complaining about alleged breaches of the laws dictating when people can wage war – jus ad bellum.
The moral posturing concerning the war in Syria is entirely unwarranted. Neither side is in the clear, although for different reasons.
When it comes to jus in bello, the Americans on the whole behave fairly well. They make mistakes – intelligence is wrong and they strike the wrong target, or missiles go astray and kill civilians. But a lot of effort is put into avoiding civilian casualties, and military lawyers are normally consulted before any major targeting decision is made. By contrast, judging by its behaviour during the battle for Grozny in the second Chechen war and during the current fighting in Aleppo, the Russian military seems somewhat less restrained in the use of force in bello. This may be a matter of culture and ethics, or it may simply be a question of potential (Russian military technology and the particular nature of the battles Russia fights may not allow for as much restraint). Nevertheless, from an American perspective, the Russian way of war seems relatively indiscriminate.
On the other hand, there can be little doubt that the Americans have consistently broken the rules of jus ad bellum. The bombings of Yugoslavia and Libya, the invasion of Iraq, and the support given to Syrian rebels, as well as other examples, indicate an unhealthy willingness to start wars. And in recent years, the Americans have definitely started far more wars than have the Russians. Regardless of how well its troops have obeyed the rules of jus in bello, the United States has thus ended up causing far more destruction than Russia.
The words of Justice Robert Jackson at the Nuremburg Tribunal come to mind: ‘To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.’