Transporting Weapons to the Kurds: A Proportionate Response?

Australia is transporting weapons and ammunition to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces fighting the Islamic State (IS) insurgents in Northern Iraq. Albania and Croatia are evidently going to help as well, but Australia is actually flying transport planes into the region, landing and handing over the goods. IS had been having notable military success  against the Iraqi army, the Kurds and the various militias that it has encountered, not least because of the weapons that it captured – and of course this is not the first time that weapons have been captured and turned on those who originally possessed and supplied them. The United States has intervened with air strikes which have slowed IS down somewhat, but airpower is never enough (unless it employs nuclear weapons!). Given that something more must be done to stop IS short of sending in a new ‘coalition of the willing’ troops, the next step is to try to bolster local resistance. Given that the Iraqi army appears hopelessly outmatched, the only candidates left, besides the Syrians, are the Kurds; hence Australia’s allotted task. This is said by various government officials, most recently by the Minister for Immigration, to be ‘proportionate’. In this post I want to examine what this means.

I suspect that the Minister, and other members of the government, have been briefed by people with at least a passing familiarity with (contemporary) Just War Theory (JWT) and that the use of “proportionate” is intended to be a tacit appeal to that theory. That may or may not have been made plain to the Minister, but it seems clear that he has been told that this is the right sort of thing to say. So, in the first place, any use of “proportionate” points to some kind of relationship: something is proportionate to something else, because nothing can be proportionate all by itself and in isolation from everything else. Use of “proportionate” here implies that something is to done in relation to something else, something that is already the case,  and moreover what is to be done is in some sense appropriate to what is already in place. In general, one would not expect a government to respond to any situation in a way that is not somehow ‘proportionate’. One would not expect a government to respond disproportionality to anything, because this suggests that the response is not appropriate and hence not what should be done, and I think the connotation is that such a response is too much or too severe – a disproportionate response to the budget crisis would  be to double the tax burden on everyone (heaven forbid). Since we expect that the government at least thinks that what it does is proportionate, and since it does not usually label what it is does as “proportionate”, I am led to believe there is a tacit appeal to JWT.


JWT, which is relatively new, emerged from a just war tradition that dates back to the first millennium CE if not earlier - I can only give the barest outline here (though there is more in my book Designed to Kill). The just war tradition grew up because of the need for certain religious groups, notably christians, to justify their participation in acts of organised violence, namely wars: killing and destruction are not the sorts of things that good people like christians should engage in. However, if a war is just, it would seem that taking part in it is at least morally permissible. And to claim that a war is just is to claim that one can take part in it without wrong-doing, although such claims may not stand up. While there are different versions of JWT, and debates about the fine details among the experts, the modern consensus is that a war can only be just if it resists aggression, and this implies, given that wars have two sides, that only one can have just cause. What counts as ‘resisting aggression’ can be very slippery, as can ‘self-defence’, so in practice one needs to be careful in making evaluations of wars as just.

If a war is to just, then there are other conditions that need to be satisfied, in addition to the just cause condition of resisting aggression. These conditions cover both the resort to war, so-called jus ad bellum, and the conduct of the war, jus in bello. As it happens, there is both an ad bellum proportionality condition and an in bello proportionality condition (I have written on the former and will supply the reference if anyone ask for it), which have some common features. The resort to war will not be a proportional or proportionate response to aggression if the cost of going to war outweighs the benefits. One might wonder how to decide if this proportionality condition can be satisfied, which I think that is a good question. The other proportionality condition, the one about the conduct of a war, is also about means, but in a more restricted sense. Thus according to in bello proportionality, for a given objective, only means sufficient for achieving it should be used. This condition is intended to rule out excessive force, but again it is difficult to judge what is sufficient. With this in mind, we can return to the supply of arms to the Kurds.



JWT is a theory about war, so if it is to have application, then a war must at least be in the offing. I think we can accept that there is a war in Northern Iraq and that IS is the aggressor. It follows, according to JWT, that those who are under threat from IS have just cause to resist, which they are doing. The US has become involved and is trying to persuade others to take part as well. It is much less clear that the US and its ‘coalition’ also have just cause, as they are not themselves subject to aggression. In other words, if A is fighting a just war, and B steps in to help A, it does not follow that B’s participation is justified. As to Australia, in what way could its supplying weapons to the Kurds be proportionate? Supplying weapons is not actually fighting, but it is to take part in the war; if IS were equipped with anti-aircraft systems, like the Buk-2, then Aussie planes would be legitimate targets. I would argue therefore that both the US, and Australia, are at war with IS, just as they were against the Taliban, the Iraqi insurgents, Saddam’s forces, and so on. Two questions then need to be answered: is going to war a proportionate response on Australia’s part to the aggression posed by IS?, and, is sending arms to the Kurds ‘proportional’ to the objective to be achieved? It is not immediately clear how to answer these questions. But I think they are the ones we need to ask, given the rhetoric the government has chosen to justify its decision. I intend to try to analyse them further in another post. 

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