The Future of Military Ethics
EuroISME Annual Conference 2023
Venue: Athens, Greece
Date: 10-12 May 2023
Topic – The Future of Military Ethics
“Sir, when are times going to get quiet and normal again?” the Private asked.
“Never son, never,” the General answered.
This conversation took place in Europe shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. At that time most West European countries decided not only to downsize their armed forces, but also to give those armed forces new tasks. The relative certainties of the Cold War were replaced by an ever increasing range of new uncertainties.
In the decades which followed, these new tasks included fighting domestic terrorism, for example with serving military personnel highly visible on the streets of Paris, Madrid and Brussels. The new concept of ‘peacebuilding’ emerged from the UN Secretary General’s report An agenda for peace (1992) – soon to be followed by the controversial concept of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ in the wake of the Kosovo crisis.
One consequence was that future military interventions could be portrayed as moral – a portrayal which stood in contrast with the traditional concept of justifiable self-defence. The idea of ‘humanitarian intervention’ emerged and was little more than an attempt to rewrite Just War Doctrine. A telling detail was that in some of European countries such interventions were financed from the budget for overseas development assistance – not the budget of the Ministry of Defence. International terrorism also became a major force driver, whether as a direct result of attacks such as 9/11 or the emergence of powerful and ruthless groups such as ISIS (Daesh).
Thus, the complementary pillars of international law and military ethics were no longer the stable frames of reference they had been. We have entered a period of turbulence, as the following points illustrate:
- Since the adoption of the United Nations Charter until the end of the Cold War the assumption was that wars would only be considered legitimate if sanctioned by the UN. Since the Kosovo crisis (1999) this assumption has been called into question, partly because of the emergence of the concept of R2P. The whole question of legitimacy is further called into question by the ability of permanent members of the Security Council to either veto a mandate for action or block condemnation of actions already undertaken.
- Modern technologies set new demands on both the laws of war and military ethics. What does the concept of an ‘armed attack’ under Article 51 of the UN Charter mean, if the attack is non-kinetic? Modern technologies also imply that the concept of a ‘battlefield’ is becoming obsolete: no longer is a ‘battlefield’ a geographical location: a cyber-attack can spread quickly over the world as a whole. Modern technologies also imply that the human being can be ‘out of the loop’ of a weapons system; which raises the question whether ethics is, then, out of the loop as well.
- The US-led attack on Iraq and the overthrow of President Saddam Hussein was based on questionable legal grounds. This, in turn, eroded the premise which has held sway since the Second World War, namely that the professional military must be able to presume that orders given by a democratically elected government are lawful. That premise was eroded further in the wake of the fall of Kabul, when the professional military was ordered to leave thousands of local workers and their dependents behind, in scenes which were reminiscent of the fall of Saigon (1975).
- Peacekeeping forces are supposed to be neutral and impartial. But what does that mean when a peacekeeper is faced with murder, rape and pillage? Should he/she stand idly by, in accordance with his mandate, and let the crimes take place? Or should he intervene, taking basic principles of justice into account?
- What does the concept of justice actually mean, if the international community does not intervene, as when chemical weapons were used during the Syrian civil war?
- Irregular forces – frequently armies in sandals – do not merely undermine the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. They also undermine fundamental concepts of military ethics. The International Review of the Red Cross wrote: “The notion of heroism, traditionally associated with obedience to a warrior’s code of honour, now seems either to be absent, or to have been completely to be perverted by those who portray cowardly murders as so many glorious victories and proudly broadcast videos of their crimes on YouTube.”
What is clear is that new ways of waging war are being added to the existing spectrum of conflict. This can prompt one of two responses – either that military ethics as traditionally defined will become decreasingly relevant or that we need to radically change what we understand by military ethics in order to maintain relevance.
We naturally prefer the second of the two options. A world of conflict without ethical boundaries is literally too horrible to contemplate. But how do we keep ethics relevant in these circumstances? How do we continue to move ethics from the realms of philosophy to that of intensely practical application?
At EuroISME’s 12th annual conference in Athens we aim to discuss these fundamental questions.
Dates and venue
On the eve of the conference, Tuesday May 9th, 2023 we held an informal reception for all conference participants and their partners at the Hellenic Armed Forces Officers’ Club in the centre of Athens, with a view of Aristoteles’ Lyceum. The actual conference lasted from Wednesday morning May 10th to Friday May 12th, at the Hellenic Air Force Academy, on the outskirts of Athens.
Pictures from the conference
Meet & Greet reception
Day 1 of the conference
Day 2 of the conference
Day 3 of the conference
In anticipation of EuroISME's next annual conference in Athens, the Executive Directors Daniel Beaudoin and Ted van Baarda visited the Hellenic Air Force Academy on June 22, 2022. The met with the Commandant, Maj.Gen. Konstantinos Karamesinis and with the Dean, Professor Petros Kotsiopoulos. With it spacious conference halls, it quickly became clear that the Academy is well-equiped to host a conference like ours.
The meet & greet as well as the ceremonial dinner will take place in the Hellenic Armed Forces Officers Club, in the centre of Athens. From the terrace, one can see Aristoteles' Lyceum, where the grand old man delivered his lectures a long time ago.