State defense

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Traditional Just War theory is based on a simple principle. Military aggression against a state that is recognized as a member in the society of states (or, nowadays, as a member in the United Nations) is a crime of aggression (or a crime against peace). States possess an inherent right to wage a defensive war, whose aim is averting aggressive threats, thereby defending their sovereignty and territorial integrity. They possess this right in virtue of their international legitimacy. Moreover, national defense is the only just cause for war that individual states are entitled to without the authorization of the UN Security Council. As it is usually interpreted, the right to national defense is an element in a complex right, composed of (1) a right of states to exercise political power by making, enforcing, and applying laws over a particular territory and (2) an immunity-right from interference with their rule over that entire area, by attempts at regime change, annexation, colonization, or secession; the right to national defense is a remedial right that the immunity-right entails. Founders of international law infer the rights of states in general, and the right to national defense in particular, from an analogy between states and individuals, arguing, in effect, that the moral standing of the two is equally fundamental and self-evident: Just as by force of natural liberty it must be allowed to every man that he abide by his own judgement in acting … as long as he does nothing which is contrary to your right, so likewise by force of the natural liberty of nations it must be allowed to any one of them to abide by its own judgement in the exercise of sovereignty. Drawing on this tradition, contemporary international law asserts, ‘the use of force is prohibited as a choice of conduct toward another state, just as domestically the criminal law forbids individuals from violence toward one another. A monopoly on legal use of force rests with the supranational organization, the UN, not individual states, just as domestically the government controls the legitimate use of force.’ Accordingly, Article 51 to the UN Charter ‘copies the domestic system’s rule of self-defense in cases in which the government cannot bring its power to bear to prevent illegal violence.’

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Handbook of the Just War
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9781316591307
ISBN (Print)9781107152496
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2018


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