IIS Seminar Discusses The Role of Ethics in International Conflicts
Professor Mervyn Frost, Head of the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London, was the second guest speaker at the ‘Talking Ethics’ series held on 24 March 2009. Titled ‘Understanding contemporary conflict in ethical terms’, the talk argued that ethical discourse plays a pivotal role in how participants as well as observers frame their positions in conflict, regardless of the legal and political language that is used.
Using several examples of contemporary warfare, including the US-led war in Iraq, Professor Frost argued that military and political perspectives alone failed to explain the justifications advanced by various parties and their critics for their evolving positions. Rather, ethical reasoning on the basis of principles that emerge from the legal, political and social norms in international relations was the key to understanding rationales. Precisely because the various parties shared this framework, said Professor Frost, the ethical framework was a coherent one globally. Principles such as self-determination, sovereignty, protection of human rights and minorities, and legitimate self-defence were used time and again within this accepted ethical framework. It was critical to all the parties not just to prevail in military terms but also to be perceived as acting morally; ‘just war’ is as vital today as it has been in theological doctrines in the past. It is critical in both the main settings that constitute international relations: the community of states and global civil society. Both these settings involve essentially the same core ethical ideas, though they may receive varying emphases depending on whether it was citizens or governments that happened to be framing their application in practice.
For Professor Frost, this reality makes it imperative for us all to develop ethical capacities that would make us effective in understanding and articulating our positions. In this sense, ‘ethical fitness’ is a skill that has become indispensible at every level in civil society and political society alike.
The talk was followed by a lively question and answer session in which the role of non-state actors and international media received particular attention. Earlier, the series’ organiser, Dr. Amyn Sajoo, said in his introductory remarks that the ultimate challenge for various civil and political actors was to mobilise plural humanistic traditions of ethics – secular and religious – without losing sight of the spiritual commitments that bind us all.
Abstract of the Lecture: Understanding Contemporary Conflict in Ethical Terms