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Participants of a demonstration protest against the war and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in front of the Federal Chancellery on February 25, 2022 in Berlin, Germany. One hand holds a sign with the inscription "No War." (Photo: Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images)

As Global Horror Unfolds in Ukraine, Why Is War Still Legal?

Why is there no serious movement to abolish war?

Robin Aura Kanegis

Would you be able to attack and take over your neighbor's home over a boundary line dispute? Could you legally threaten their safety, no matter how angry you were? The answer is a resounding no. Then why is it that when a conflict transcends national boundaries, we have no clear and immediate recourse against aggression other than threatening or carrying out more violence in return? 

We have been conditioned to accept international violence—essentially mass murder in the name of states' goals.

Our societies—local, national, and global—choose the behaviors we normalize. We have set murder and theft outside moral bounds in most societal contexts. So why do our moral codes end at state boundaries?  Why is there no serious movement to abolish war?  

The system of international law has been undermined at every turn to protect the ability of strong countries to do what they please. The United Nations has been kept weak, with the system of Security Council vetoes for the five permanent members making a farce of the idea of global accountability. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is an opt-in situation, applying only to those countries that have accepted the jurisdiction of the court—and neither Russia nor the United States have opted in. Most cases listed on the ICC docket target African or Middle Eastern officials, putting a fine point on who the court is and is not meant to scrutinize for crimes of aggression, war crimes, genocide, or crimes against humanity. This week's preliminary decision of the UN International Court of Justice ordering Russia to "suspend" military operations in Ukraine has been met with a shrug from Russia, which simply asserted that the court lacked jurisdiction. 

The destructive impact of war is not new. Major and minor conflicts rage across the globe today, largely outside western headlines and sympathies. In the Sahel, Yemen, Afghanistan, and the list goes on—hundreds of thousands of people have been murdered and millions have had their lives destroyed by violent conflict, with zero recourse. The scale of global attention which the war in Ukraine has received makes evident the deep racism and Islamophobia at play in shaping whose lives may be acceptably threatened by war.  

But because major powers across the world are paying attention, the attack on Ukraine also offers an inflection point: should it be legal to attack our neighbor's home and try to occupy it? If not, isn't it time to abolish war?   

We have been conditioned to accept international violence—essentially mass murder in the name of states' goals. While on the surface societies have moved beyond feudal systems with war lords vying for territory, today we have terrible weaponry that could destroy the whole of humanity many times over with the click of a button. The fate of the world lies on a tenuous global "gentleman's" agreement that we probably wouldn't click that button—but the threat of annihilation still hangs over us, with no real recourse at the global level. The only system of accountability we have invested in is the ability to annihilate others just as many times as they could annihilate us. But why is it still legal for states to compel their citizens to use violence at all?   

While a world without war may seem unthinkable in our current political context, we sell ourselves short if we refuse to imagine it and demand it.

We need systems of accountability and legal recourse that allow us to nonviolently address conflicts that transcend national boundaries. It is time to make international laws universal and binding—no matter how powerful and influential a country violating those laws might be—and to invest in developing tools and methods for peacebuilding that have the same level of authority and resources that we have invested for generations in war-making. It is time to invest in research and development for means to interrupt violence without more violence. For examples of how non-violent responses can succeed even in cases of asymmetrical power, we can look to the practices of non-violent, civilian-based defense that have been successful in conflicts across the globe. 

While a global shift in approach will raise many questions—what enforcement will look like, how disarmament could happen on a global scale, and what international bodies could equitably provide this type of governance—the potential benefits are enormous. We could make serious investments in systems of restorative justice of the sort that could infuse all of our conversations about accountability and justice. Without spending a trillion dollars annually across the globe on militaries, we could take some amazing steps forward in healing our planet and communities—and addressing some of the underlying issues that drive violent conflict in the first place.  

While a world without war may seem unthinkable in our current political context, we sell ourselves short if we refuse to imagine it and demand it. It is unthinkable that more than 1900 civilians and an untold number of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers have already died in Ukraine. It is unthinkable that more than 900,000 people have been killed in the U.S.-led "war on terror." But this is the reality and will continue to be if we fail to envision and invest in alternate paths.  

Ultimately, human history is one of trial, error, and evolution. Evolution starts with summoning the imagination to envision a better way and making a decision to change. Isn't it time for us to evolve beyond war?  


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Robin Aura Kanegis

Robin Aura Kanegis serves as Director of Public Policy and Washington Office for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker-based organization working for peace, social justice and nonviolent change. She provides strategic direction for all aspects of the organization’s engagement with Congress and the Administration. Visit AFSC at www.afsc.org.

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