Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

The Imperative to Rebuild: Assessing the Normative Case for Postconflict Reconstruction

Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

The Imperative to Rebuild: Assessing the Normative Case for Postconflict Reconstruction

Article excerpt

The way a war is fought and the deeds done in ending it live on in the historical memory of societies and may or may not set the stage for future war. It is always the duty of statesmanship to take this longer view.

John Rawls, The Law of Peoples

The past two decades have witnessed the proliferation of comprehensive international missions of peacebuilding and reconstruction, aimed not simply at bringing conflict to an end but also at preventing its recurrence. Recent missions, ranging from relatively modest involvement to highly complex international administrations, have generated a sustained debate about the rights and duties of international actors to reconstruct postconflict states. Those members of the international community who serve in and support such missions contend that these activities represent rational and ethical attempts to support such "universal" goods as democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, and thereby create conditions under which those who have endured conflict and disruption can pursue the "good life." Critics, meanwhile, argue that the practices of postconflict reconstruction themselves violate the basic rights and liberties of local populations, labeling some instances of international administration as neocolonialism. (1)

Despite this ethically charged debate, we remain without a systematic normative theory of postconflict reconstruction. As noted in the introduction to this special issue, the three main contexts for discussion of the ethical dimensions of reconstruction have been (1) the philosophical debates over the content of jus post bellum, (2) (2) the literature on trusteeship and international administrations, (3) and (3) the limited commentary on the international community's "responsibility to rebuild." (4) Yet, in the latter two cases, the analysis remains underdeveloped. The primary focus has been on the apparent tension between the need for international actors to take on some governance functions in postconflict situations, and the imperative to respect the well-established principle of self-determination. In the case of the former--the reach and content of jus post bellum--the debate has only really just begun.

The conventional just war position--where war is viewed as an act of rights vindication--is that an armed conflict should end with the restoration of the status quo ante. This stance reflects a desire to prevent victors from succumbing to the temptation of excess by limiting the activities they are permitted to engage in once hostilities end. (5) The textbook case is war as a response to an act of aggression by one state against another. Such a conflict ends justly when the aggressor is defeated, its attack repulsed, and the old and established borders of the victimized state are restored. Questions of justice are limited to reparations and, in some accounts, demilitarization and the creation of security guarantees. It is clear, however, that the textbook case simplifies or omits certain realities of war and peace. For example, what does the status quo ante mean in the case of humanitarian intervention, where, as Michael Walzer notes, the war is from the beginning an effort to change a regime responsible for some inhumanity? (6)

International law does, of course, have an established view on postwar obligations, as laid out in the Hague Convention of 1907 and the Geneva Convention of 1949. (7) However, these provisions are designed to fit the specific legal category of military occupation, which does not cover all contemporary cases of statebuilding. Some international lawyers, moreover, doubt whether the obligations of military powers under occupation law extend beyond restoration of the status quo ante, and they contest that there is a right to move beyond occupation to assume day-to-day governance functions. (8) Thus, the strand of international law that makes provisions for postwar obligations has been of only limited assistance in thinking about the rights and duties of actors engaged in the many postconflict missions authorized by the UN Security Council over the past two decades. …

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