Ethics of peace must be lived

Ethics in international law and international relations

by Florian D. Pfaff*

cc. Florian D. Pfaff gave the following lecture at the conference “Uranium 238 – Consequences of the 1999 Bombardment with Depleted Uranium” from 17-19 June 2019 in Niš (see “Uranium 238 – Impact of the bombardment of Yugoslavia with depleted uranium in 1999”).

Many thanks, dear Professor Nedeljkovic, dear Velimir, for the friendly invitation, which of course I gladly accepted, and to the organisers. But I would also like to thank all of you, ladies and gentlemen, for your presence and cooperation at this conference.
I will try to explain in less than ten minutes what I think is to be said about the phenomenon of ethics in international relations. I am talking about the theory of ethics found in international law and about the currently applied ethics and to what extent the applied ethics still deviate from the theory. Since, unfortunately, I do not speak Serbian, I will speak in German. Many thanks therefore also to the translators.
I would like to formulate my statements in the form of four theses.

Ethics – part of culture

First: By ethics one understands moral and ethical thought that goes beyond the respective interests of a state and binds them. Be it through self-commitment or through written law or law that has become a habit. International relations have existed since the existence of nation states. Ethics is a component of the respective cultures, thus corresponds normatively to the customs and values usual in each case, for example the Christian commandments. For a long time, however, there was no written law that limited the interaction between states through morality and thus made it more human. A Carolingian could kill whoever he wanted. War was generally regarded as the continuation of politics with the help of other means. These ranged from friendship to threat or siege for the purpose of conquest to, more recently, total global war, which certainly had nothing more to do with ethics or charity.
Secondly, humanity has evolved technically and has finally acquired the ability to completely destroy the enemy in a few minutes. We do not know whether or to what extent ethics would be a topic today, especially with politicians like Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, if the USA had remained the sole owner of the so-called “weapons of mass destruction”. It is historically proven, however, that other countries developed “weapons of mass destruction” and that the peoples of this world have agreed, in view of the well-founded fear of their own destruction after the Second World War, to outlaw the war by treaty.

Outlaw wars

This thesis refers to the theory. With a UN and a charter dedicated to the well-being of the people, which limits military force to either self-defence or jointly decided measures in the sense of preventing or ending wars, not a single state is actually forced to renounce illegal violence. International law, such as the Charter of the United Nations, international treaties, such as the so-called Two-Plus-Four Treaty, and national laws, such as the German Basic Law, which all prohibit the participation of Germany in wars of aggression, are indeed very praiseworthy legal provisions. But they are only normative statements. On paper, states are bound by them.
Thirdly, the violations are immediately noticeable: If one compares the above-mentioned legal regulations with the lived practice, one can recognise as one of the reasons it is clear that there is not always also a judge who condemns violations of the duty to peaceableness or awards compensation to a victim, if the aggressor is powerful and does not voluntarily submit to the justice created for this purpose. The USA is known to reject the conviction of its executive branch by an international tribunal. A state that has signed up to respect the sovereignty of all other states should not, from an ethical and moral point of view, even disinform and invent reasons for war, since the spreading of lies already endangers peace. But one country in particular is known for accusing unpopular other states of immorality and breach of law without sufficient evidence, such as concentration camps, human torture, genocide, possession of nuclear weapons and poison gas laboratories. This is particularly impressive, because this state, which need not be named (everyone knows it), runs camps in which it tortures undauntedly (and probably not only there), or it has all kinds of weapons of mass destruction at its disposal.     

States must uphold the law

Only this particular state used A, B and C weapons so far. As far as the future is concerned, it does not think about lying any less, about refraining from wars of aggression or from worldwide death sentences against citizens of other states. The erroneous assumption that it could thus reduce the number of its enemies is probably enough. Moreover, today’s states often do not fulfil their contractual obligation to only encourage their soldiers to use force lawfully and to always bind them to international law. Unfortunately, as a soldier in the German Armed Forces, I saw for myself how attempts were made to force me to ignore international law and to take part in the Iraq war. If I would not ignore the law, I would face consequences from degradation to imprisonment. I published at that time that the German Armed Forces did not feel bound by binding court rulings either. They still want to enforce their own orders, even if they have been prohibited by the courts. This is also contrary to national law. The extent of power arbitrariness and war lies or participation in wars of aggression is little known and is usually not mentioned by the media. To this day, even German parliamentarians who are either misinformed or deliberately lie to the population deny Germany’s participation in the Iraq war. Groups other than the executive branch with its armed forces also fall into this category, in which rules exist, but they are slandered and ignored, at least misjudged. I have already mentioned the media and Parliament. But I would also like to mention the church, or rather parts of the church, the Protestant military pastoral care in Germany. It verbally supports wars of aggression such as the one against Iraq by wanting to give the orders of the German Armed Forces priority over the conscience of the soldiers concerned, although the competent court has rejected exactly that. And it also denies the validity of the European Convention on Human Rights, arguing that kicking in doors and arrests would no longer be possible without a judge’s decision. It obviously misjudges the fact that God has given people a clear conscience and that people have given themselves binding norms so that this is no longer so easy. The sign “Christian” ethics is placed predominantly. But I only call Christians those who demand to respect international treaties and the conscience of individuals, i.e. those who rejoice in the judgment in question instead of scolding judges, and who praise the existing legal order in their writings instead of denying it. My third thesis can therefore simply be summed up to the effect that the usual practice in the so-called “community of values” contradicts the moral and legal norms to an astonishing degree. The proponents of war can be proud of the fact that they can still postulate and commit almost any act of violence with impunity, so to speak.

Demanding peace

Fourth (and last) thesis: Conferences like this are the ones that make a broader public (more) aware of these grievances. If people would not long for a life without war, fear of oppression, spying and drone murders, there would be neither the mentioned international treaties nor efforts for détente. The USA, in particular, has gained a worldwide reputation as a rogue superpower and will have to make an effort if it wants to get rid of this reputation. I cannot say whether they want that or not. They would first have to renounce their claim as the sole world power and “lower themselves” again to the level of an equal state. But this is a democratic idea that is lived more between New York and Los Angeles than between Washington and Moscow, Belgrade or Baghdad. It will be difficult to persuade the superpowers to do so directly. We should therefore first understand for ourselves that it is bad to betray one’s values and seek one’s salvation in an excess of violence. We should see to it that we convince our own elites in “old Europe” that it is better to live in peace and friendship. It is not only better together because you are less a target yourself or because you don’t have to lie for it. In particular, the pursuit of friendship captivates by the fact that one does not have to kill for it.
Thank you for listening patiently for so long.    •

* Florian D. Pfaff (*1957 in Munich), a qualified pedagogue, is a former major of the German Armed Forces. During the war of aggression against Iraq in 2003, which violated international law, he refused the order, citing the Nuremberg Principles and the UN Charter. He got justice in Germany – but was still prematurely retired in May 2013. He is the author of “Totschlag im Amt. Wie der Friede verraten wurde” (Manslaughter in Office. How peace was betrayed), 2008, ISBN 978-3-937245-03-4

(Translation Current Concerns)