Who may we bomb? A reply to Barry Buzan, 2001

Posted: December 13, 2009 in 2001, war and peace
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Who may we bomb? A reply to Barry Buzan


24 November 2001

David Goodhart, Editor, Prospect

Dear David

Barry Buzan’s case for relegitimating the explicit targeting of civilians in war (‘Who may we bomb?’, Prospect, December 2001, www.prospect-magazine.co.uk) is quite disgraceful. Regardless of the degree of political relationship between states and armed forces, on the one hand, and civilians on the other, the latter always include many – not only children – who bear no responsibility at all for the former’s policies. The whole basis of Buzan’s argument is therefore simply irrelevant to the principal, moral reason for scrupulously maintaining the distinction between combatants and non-combatants, notwithstanding the undoubted practical difficulties of enforcing this distinction to which he refers.

The practice of bombing in the Second World War and the planning of nuclear targeting during the Cold War, which Buzan appears to see as precedents for a looser attitude to the protection of civilians, utterly disregarded the international conventions on war, which enshrined this distinction. They blurred the lines between war and genocide, deeply discredited international law, and threatened humanity with the most catastrophic violence. It has taken us half a century to begin to escape from this deep degeneracy in our civilisation, and that escape is very unsure.

September 11 showed that there are some for whom the deliberate mass killing of civilians is still a legitimate mode of war. If there is any moral ground at all between al-Qaida and the West, surely we need to affirm our tenuous recovery of the principle of respect for civilian life. At the moment when the US’s apparently light attitude to the laws of war in Afghanistan brings this commitment into question, international relations scholars should uphold international values and principles – as Oxford’s Adam Roberts, for example, has done in reminding us all of the protection accorded to prisoners. Certainly, academics should not be one step ahead of politicians in seeking to abandon the basis of international society.

Martin Shaw, University of Sussex

Professor of International Relations & Politics, University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9SN

www.martinshaw.org; editor, www.theglobalsite.ac.uk: commentary on world crisis at www.theglobalsite.ac.uk/justpeace

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