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The standards by which war with Iraq must be judged

A conflict on the current evidence and terms would be difficult to support

By Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor

Printed in the London Times, September 5, 2002

A key section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church urges us, because of the evils and injustices that accompany war, to pray and to do all we can not to be drawn into armed conflict. Indeed, it goes further: “All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.”

There are good reasons why many, including our own and the U.S. Government, regard the regime in Iraq as a threat to the security of the region and, presumably, the West. President Saddam Hussein has committed numerous atrocities against his own people. He has persistently refused to comply with the UN Security Council resolutions which require Iraq to surrender its weapons of mass destruction. There have been suggestions, but no proof to date, that he is intent on acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.

Discussion among Western leaders today is now focused not just on the nature of the threat, and on the desirability of a regime change in Iraq, but whether that change should be enforced by outside military action: in other words, by beginning a war.

The Catechism sets out a number of rigorous conditions for an act of self-defense -- in this case a possible pre-emptive strike -- to be regarded as legitimate. One is that “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated”. It notes that “the power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition”.

A war in Iraq would cause great destruction and suffering. It would also entail grave consequences for our own country and for the world. There is reason to be concerned that military intervention would set the Arab world against the West, and undermine efforts directed at peace between Israel and the Palestinian people.

The Prime Minister has now promised to publish evidence to support his growing conviction that the threat posed by Iraq is both grave and imminent, and that the regime must change itself or be changed. Without persuasive, preferably incontrovertible, evidence of this kind it is difficult to see how concerns in this country and abroad about this course of action could be allayed.

Then there are other, related and equally pressing, questions which must be addressed:

  • Is military action intended to neutralize a threat, to effect a regime change, or both?
  • Will military intervention stabilize or destabilize the region?
  • Will it advance or delay peace between Israelis and Palestinians?
  • Does it have the endorsement of the UN Security Council and, in the case of Britain, of the European Union? If not, what will be its effect on our efforts to establish a structure of international law which all nations will respect?

It seems to me that many British people will find it hard to support the British and US Governments in what is now being contemplated unless, in addition to the evidence promised by the Government, they can be given convincing answers to such questions.

But there is another possibility to consider. Head-on confrontation in a time of crisis may be unavoidable, but it is liable to create as many problems as it solves. Underlying causes also have to be addressed.

Soon after the dreadful events of September 11, I attended a meeting in Rome of bishops from all over the world. Great sympathy was conveyed to the U.S. bishops and, through them, to the American people. There were also present, however, bishops from some of the poorest countries in the world who, while fully sharing this sympathy for the U.S., reminded their fellow bishops of other kinds of atrocity. Millions were slaughtered in Rwanda in 1994, with no effective response from the international community.

The African bishops also drew our attention to the tragedy that thousands of children in their dioceses were dying every week for lack of food and potable drinking water. Weighed in the balance with the resources available to the world as a whole, such destitution is not just an awful human tragedy -- it is a terrible international injustice.

It would be easy to regard this tragedy as entirely separate from the “war against terrorism” or instability in the Middle East. But there is a connection. By pouring almost inconceivably massive resources into preparing for, and then prosecuting, military conflict, we inevitably divert funds from the war on world poverty. By so doing, we further endanger the fragile lives of millions of people, over and above those who become victims of conflict itself.

Perhaps the time has come to consider an unprecedented coalition of aid to the poorest peoples of the world -- to Africa in the first place, but also to the displaced and impoverished peoples of the Middle East. Would not that be a more far-reaching, sustainable and positive way to challenge both the evil of terrorism and the scandal of world poverty? Terrorism can never be portrayed or defended as a protest against poverty; but neither can it be defeated simply by force of arms. Even a decisive and “successful” war would create swaths of new victims and tend to deepen existing patterns of hostility. I am convinced that the might of generous self-sacrifice, rather than the might of arms, is the only way to construct a more just and more peaceful world.

There are occasions when a short-term response to an imminent threat serves an important preventive purpose. However, the problems of our planet cannot be solved by unilateral military action alone.

In a globalized world, the wisdom of specific actions or policies with international impact must ultimately be judged by the extent to which they improve the lot of all mankind, especially the poorest, and enhance the prospects for world peace. At present there are genuine reasons to doubt that military action against Iraq would pass that test.

Copyright © 2002 - Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor

National Catholic Reporter, Posted September 18, 2002