A just war against Mugabe?

2009-01-28 00:00

No less a moral authority than Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has reportedly raised the question of a military intervention to remove Robert Mugabe and his regime from power in Zimbabwe if nothing else works.

There is a longstanding view that it can be ethical to use military force. Known as the just war theory, it lays down five criteria that must be met, according to ethicist Tony Cody.

Firstly, war must be declared and waged by a legitimate authority. A nation state such as South Africa and an official group of states like the Southern African Development Community, the African Union or the United Nations are examples.

Secondly, the reason for military intervention must be just. I think that it would be just to remove from power a brutal regime that lost an election and rules by the gun, terrorising its people, murdering opponents and one that is manifestly incapable of running even basic services. Is this not a fair description of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe today?

The third requirement is that force must be a last resort, all nonviolent measures having been tried and failed. Here I sense the presence of tricky issues. Years of talking, international pressure, sanctions and our own quiet diplomacy have all so far failed to dislodge the Zimbabwean leadership. But has South Africa in particular really used all the nonviolent pressures that it could to get that regime to step down, such as road, rail, air, oil, economic and communication blockades allowing only humanitarian access to our northern neighbour?

If these further measures were used and they also failed we would then be left with just two options: force or washing one’s hands of the problem. Since ethical people cannot wish to do the latter, they must be open to the possible use of force, unless, like Mahatma Gandhi, they deem all violence to be immoral.

The fourth requirement is that there must be a reasonable chance of success. I think that this also raises some key issues, especially for a land invasion. Mugabe reportedly has a very capable army newly supplied from China via the Democratic Republic of the Congo, so it might well be able to fight off a land invasion. In that case, there might not be a reasonable chance of success.

There are other kinds of military action that might work. An air or missile strike against a key uninhabited target, preceded by a call for Mugabe, his colleagues and military heads, to step down within, say 24 hours, followed by strikes of increasing severity targeting military installations if they do not, could perhaps work. But only if South Africa or any other potential and legitimate agency has the means of delivering such strikes, and provided that such an intervention were not likely to trigger violence and civil unrest of a kind that would leave Zimbabweans worse off than they are now.

Lastly, the kind of force in-tended must be proportional to the evil being opposed. The air or missile strikes mentioned here are clearly not excessive and cannot be rejected as being too damaging, especially in relation to the gross evils being opposed.

These are the ethical criteria that must be met. They call for great expertise, wisdom and moral depth and I raise them to promote responsible debate of a very difficult issue. This discussion shows that military intervention cannot simply be dismissed as unethical when monstrous evil shows no sign of ending. Tutu is therefore justified in making the rest of us face this fearsome possibility.

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