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BIOUNCERTAINTY - ERC Starting Grant no. 805498

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Terrorists, mercenaries, civilians: some legal and ethical challenges of the recent methods and circumstances of warfare

A research project funded by the National Science Centre in Poland (2012 – 2015); principal investigator: Dr Tomasz Żuradzki.

Logo: Narodowe Centrum Nauki


Ethical issues arising from armed conflicts and the use of violence for political purposes have been much discussed in practical ethics during the last few years. The September 11 terrorist attacks that provoked a firm reaction from the United States and some of its allies, are undoubtedly among the main reasons for the recent popularity of the ethics of war. In the wake of these attacks, a revival of discussions can be observed – also among ethicist and philosophers – concerning: 1) when is it permissible to use force in international relations (ius ad bellum); 2) what are the permissible ways of waging wars, including “the war on terror” (ius in bello); 3) what are the obligations of the victors, especially in the context of building a democratic order (ius post bellum). The analyses in the project have been conducted within three main research themes: 1) Terrorists: ethical and legal problems with the classification of persons and groups using violence for political purpose in the international sphere. 2) Mercenaries: the legal and ethical aspects of the privatizations of military services. 3) Civilians: the rules of just distribution of harms between combatants and non-combatants during asymmetric warfare. The war in Afghanistan and the second war in Iraq are two wars that were fought in response to unprecedented (also in the symbolical sense) terrorist attacks. They were not defensive wars in the standard sense of the term (they are not a defense against the attack of another state); neither can they be treated as cases of humanitarian interventions. Rather they seem to be something between revenge and a preventive war against future terrorist attacks (Afghanistan) or a military intervention against a dictator ruling a country of substantial strategic significance (Iraq). But preventive wars or forcible regime change (in contrast with pre-emptive strikes or forcible humanitarian interventions) are not allowed by international law and the traditional ethics of war. Moreover, the new ways of fighting terrorism have created or revived practices that are highly controversial from a moral point of view and very often contradict international law: treating enemies as unlawful combatants (participants of military conflicts that are prosecuted under domestic penal codes); abductions and long-term detentions of suspected terrorists without right to trial and without right to legal defense; targeted killings of suspected terrorists; interrogational torture aimed at forcing testimonies; the revival of the phenomenon of mercenaries. Other ongoing events also seem to be of great importance from the perspective of this project. Let us enumerate some of them: the threat of further proliferation of nuclear weapon (Iran) and the important ethical and philosophical puzzles it implies (e.g. the problem of wrongful intentions); the ethical problems of asymmetric wars, which now seem to be the dominant form of armed conflicts, e.g. the requirement of proportionality during the justified use of force, treating civilians as human shields or methods of fighting that de facto have this result; problems connected with the right to secession.

Selected articles 

T. Żuradzki (2016), Uzasadnienie sprzeciwu sumienia: lekarze, poborowi i żołnierze [Conscientious Objection and the Requirement of Justification: Physicians, Conscripts and Soldiers], Diametros 47: 98-128

T. Żuradzki (2016), Meta-reasoning in making moral decisions under normative uncertainty, [in:] D. Mohammed & M. Lewiński (eds), Argumentation and Reasoned Action, vol. II, College Publications, London: 1093-1104

T. Żuradzki (2015), Targeted Killings: Legal and Ethical Justifications, [in:] M. Galuppo et al. (eds), Human Rights, Rule of Law and the Contemporary Social Challenges in Complex Societies, Initia Via, Belo Horizonte: 2909-23

T. Żuradzki (2014), Proporcjonalność w etyce wojny. O ograniczaniu liczby ofiar konfliktów zbrojnych [Proportionality in the ethics of war: On a duty to minimise the total number of armed conflicts’ casualties], Ethos 2: 279-298

T. Żuradzki (2014), Polityka namierzania i zabijania: aspekty etyczne i prawne [Targeted killings: ethical and legal issues], [in:]: Bezpieczeństwo narodowe i międzynarodowe wobec wyzwań współczesnego świata [National and International Security and the Challenges of the Contemporary World], W. Kitler, M. Marszałek (eds), Akademia Obrony Narodowej, Warszawa: 509-522