Colombo, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Vavuniya, War Crimes

A Just War or was it just war?

[Editors note: This short article responds to, in part, the submission made by someone called ‘Maverick’ on the Ada Derena website in response to a previous article by the author. Maverick’s comment is well-written and thought-provoking, and reproduced in full at the end of this article. The Wikipedia entry on Just War can be found here.]

How could the LTTE’s call to war be ‘just’ when the first criterion of a Just war according to the founding theologians is its declaration by ‘rightful authority’? A democratically elected government – this includes the federal secular democracy of India (which deployed the IPKF) – is surely far more of a rightful authority than a terrorist movement which furthermore never had the kind of internal political process that the ANC, PLO or Sinn Fein did?

The Just War doctrine argues that for a war to be just there must be no alternative to it. As for Just cause, what just cause could there have been for Prabhakaran’s war after the Accord of 1987, and against the Indian peacekeepers? Even Che Guevara wrote in his Guerrilla War that if a government has come into power through the ballot box, “however fraudulently”, an outbreak of war cannot be promoted and is not justified.

The Tigers had an alternative since 1987, with the Indo-Lanka accord and the IPKF presence. It had alternatives later with the talks with Premadasa, CBK’s 52 letters and union of regions ‘packages’, Ranil Wickemesinghe etc.

With the failure of these, the Sri Lankan side that realised had no alternative. It became a necessary war. As Obama said in Nobel Prize acceptance speech, a necessary war is a just war, and some forces are so evil that war becomes necessary to defeat them.

I do not accept those undated photos which could have been taken anywhere at any time, as anything more than ‘ WMD’ propaganda. Anyway it is beside the point! The fact that the Israeli army allowed the defeated Egyptian troops to wander without water in the Sinai desert till they died of thirst, didn’t prevent Michael Walzer and many other theorists from defining the  6 Day war of 1967 as a Just war, just as the firebombing of civilian Dresden by the Allies didn’t prevent WWII from being an almost paradigmatic Just war.

Sri Lanka’s war was waged by democratically elected administrations, therefore a ´rightful authority´ (one of the first criteria for a just war). It certainly was a last resort, after negotiations had been attempted by Rajiv Gandhi, Premadasa, Chandrika and Mahinda, and failed due to the LTTE´s obduracy and fanaticism. Most of those who attempted a negotiated solution were murdered by the Tigers or were sought to be murdered. The spurning by the Tigers of an available alternative, the Indo-Lanka Accord, and the Sept 1987 Interim administration enforced by the IPKF, buttressed the just character of the war waged by the state. As for a Sinhala army being unable to distinguish between Tamil combatants and non-combatants, the LTTE had long become a large-unit, territory/fixed position holding semi-conventional fighting formation, so that wasn’t a crucial problem and in any case, the use of Tamil trackers and auxiliaries belonging to the Mahattaya faction, the Karuna dissidents and ex- Eelam guerrilla groups, had for decades provided the Sri Lankan army with the capacity of making the distinction.

As for ‘proportionality’, a terrorist formation equipped with heavy artillery, a small navy, and a mini-air force could not have been dealt with except with the deployment of the type of force that the Sri Lankan armed forces did.


Dear Dr Dayan,

Thank you for your prompt reply. Sorry about not revealing who I am and then pontificating on wars(just or otherwise)-unfortunately my continuous education encourages me to think and more importantly think smart. I write with a fictional name due to the poor state of freedom of expression & human rights in Sri Lanka now as long as one and a half years since the conflict ended in May 2009. You must be aware that large portions of the media still practice self censorship-a very pitiful situation for a country that has a democratically elected government. The “just peace” you go on about cannot surely include an environment where people fear to openly criticize a democratically elected regime which you refer to as “A Rightful Authority”. Or may be you were away from the country for so long that you didn´t know how journalists fled the nation due to getting attacked or due to threats to their lives, not to mention their colleagues who were not so lucky? Of course you do not have reason to fear as a person renowned for praising the current regime however, I would much rather allow you to think I am a coward than be foolhardy. Now let us address my apparent ignorance. Rightful Authority: I caution you from thinking that democratically elected regimes always meet the criteria for a rightful authority. Rightful authorities are always democratically elected but just because a regime is democratically elected does not make it a rightful authority.You get the subtle difference right? Last Resort: This requires that the leaders did everything in their power to explore all peaceful alternatives. If I recall right Chandrika sacked a government on November 4 2003 before giving it a chance to explore all peaceful options. I dont think you can quote her as an example of someone who qualifies under this criteria of an absolute last resort. In her own admission later on-she thought it was a mistake.Also do you, Dr Dayan, know exactly what went on in those negotiations that you quoted? I am not for a moment siding with the LTTE but I would like to know if you are privy to the indepth knowledge to categorically rule out that all Sri Lankan leaders exhausted all peaceful alternatives. Just to clarify when I say exhaust, I mean, rule out every possible peaceful option every single time. Didn´t seem like we did in 2003 but then I think too much-we already established that. Discriminating Between Enemy Combatants and Civilians: Dr Dayan in the last 5 months of the war the LTTE did not use the conventional territory fixed fighting positions but rather mixed around with civilians. Their objective was to make it difficult for our army to gain an easy victory. If you are unaware of this I recommend you read the LLRC evidence. You cannot say that any military strategist could not anticipate this-any serious study of terrorism and counter terrorist warfare addresses this tactic. So what do you think happened in the last 5 months of the war? While this to you may not have been such a “crucial problem” sitting in Colombo or Geneva- I would think that if you were a civilian caught between the LTTE and Army, this may have been a problem for you or for the people you cared about caught in the same situation. Also do you have evidence that the heavy artillery we were using to shell LTTE groups that were located near innocent civilians had image guided-motion sensor aided devices that allowed us to understand and make a distinction between the combatant or the civilian. If we did have it, I would like to know more about it and how it was used and since we probably didn´t, we couldnt discriminate between the two groups and innocent people would have died. Proportionality- Just tell me about the heavy artillery we used in the final stages of the war as stated above. Also just a side note on discriminating between civilians and combatants- there is a story circulating about a Catholic Priest who arranged a surrender of of some top LTTE cadres on the final day of the conflict who is still missing. If we fought a just war-can you give me the current address of this priest so I can go to him to confess my cowardice and ignorance please? I do not wish to critique the good work you have done in deepening the discussion and debate on the ethics of violence. I am sure it was a good book and deservingly received such nice reviews. I don´t think there is any danger of you being labelled a universalist other than through a radical´s eyes. To be universalist means to always ensure that the means is always ethical. Utilitarians argue that the ends justify the means. Your arguments seem to be more utilitarian than universal. You should come over to our side, there is a lot less guilt to justify over here.

Kind regards,