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Terrorism and Walzer’s ‘Political Code’: Justifying Non-State Political Violence in Just War Theory

Christopher Finlay
University of Birmingham
Christopher Finlay
University of Birmingham
Open Panel

Abstract

In Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer is sceptical in Just and Unjust Wars about the ability of non-state political movements and partisans to invoke the rights and protections of the War Convention when engaging in armed actions against occupying armies and colonial regimes. He does, however, suggest that while many such movements can be characterised simply as ‘terrorists’ due to their unrestricted targeting of non-combatants, some revolutionary movements, historically, have distinguished their use of violence from terrorism as such by limiting their targets to key political figures. Even though they cannot be described as engaging in discriminate warfare as laid down in the Law of Armed Conflict (because they do not target soldiers) they can be described as following a ‘political code’ in scrupulously avoiding harm to innocent civilians. In this paper, I re-examine the normative frameworks within which non-state political movements may consider and try to regulate the use of armed force. I distinguish four approaches: the first is disorganized force (of the kind seen in contexts like Egypt early in 2011) where attempts at violent repression activate a right of self-defence on the parts of protesters and may lead to more generalized violence; the second involves organizing resistance in a military or quasi-military fashion (as in guerrilla resistance) where combat is limited by the LOAC (particularly as formulated in Protocol 1); the third, corresponding to Walzer’s political code, involves targeting individuals on the basis of moral responsibility for injustice rather than ‘combatant’ status; and the final, most radical, possibility is to revert to wholesale ‘terrorist’ targeting of innocent civilians. I evaluate the capacity of each framework to capture the moral dimensions of armed resistance and consider the factors that a non-state political movement would have to consider in trying to determine which (if any) it ought to adopt.