What are the moral obligations for soldiers participating in peace operations? (Photo: Colourbox)
What are the moral obligations for soldiers participating in peace operations? (Photo: Colourbox)

The moral soldier

Peacekeeping forces shoulder responsibility of protecting civilians – but how much of these obligations do the soldiers in the field actually bear?

“All’s fair in love and war”, they say. But this is not a valid argument in the real world.

Even in an extreme situation such as war, soldiers are still answerable for their actions, international courts have concluded. The classic excuse: “I was just following orders” cannot release the soldier from his or her moral responsibilities.

New ethical challenges

Political scientist Helene Christiansen Ingierd points out that modern-day peacekeeping forces, such as the ones in Kosovo, have added new ethical challenges to the international agenda.

The mission of these operations often involves providing protection to the civilian population. Peacekeeping forces thus undertake a greater moral responsibility than traditional combat forces, she argues.

“Soldiers are expected to make the right choices, also in combat situations, because their choices can have enormous impacts on other people’s lives and health,” says Ingierd.

“Yet it’s clear that under certain extreme circumstances in a war, or anywhere else, the huge pressure soldiers are operating under can eliminate or diminish this responsibility.”

Theory of a “just war”

Ingierd has in her doctoral thesis "The Moral Responsibility of Soldiers: A Normative Analysis Focusing on Peacekeepers, analyzed the theory of a “just war”, combined with interviews of Norwegian soldiers

The study aims to clarify the moral obligations of soldiers in peace operations and to investigate the ethical framework.

The “just war” theory is a branch of political theory that evaluates the moral arguments for entering a war, engaging in battle and running peacekeeping operations afterwards.

Duty to protect civilians

Ingierd’s study focuses especially on the obligation to protect civilians in so-called “complex peace operations” − military operations that combine elements of classical peace operations and traditional combat.

This responsibility is stronger in complex peace operations, in the sense that soldiers are obligated to intervene to protect civilians who are subjected to abuse from a third party, writes Ingierd.

She thinks the objective of peace operations and close cooperation with the local machinery of power, which is a central aspect of such operations, contribute to increased moral responsibility.

Unclear principle

Norway has participated in peace operations for several decades.

"But it wasn’t until Afghanistan that we became involved in a complex peace operation where our soldiers are supposed to contribute to peace and build relationships to the civilian population while also participating in battle,” says Ingierd.

She is particularly concerned about the implications that the principle "responsibility to protect" has for soldiers and actions in war.

This principle was included more or less explicitly as part of the mandate of military operations the last decade – most recently in Libya – but Ingierd thinks it’s unclear what this actually means for the soldier on the ground.

Conflict for soldiers

The extra onus as a protector also increases the potential for dilemmas for the individual soldier. Ingierd points out that a stronger emphasis on responsibility towards civilians creates tensions in the role of the soldier, particularly for the soldier’s obligation to protect his/her own troops.

She maintains that there are sociological and psychological reasons for limiting their responsibility for civilians in certain situations.

Helene Christiansen Ingierd concludes that there are still major challenges linked to the development of an ethical and legal framework for complex peace operations.

“A clarification is certainly needed for the soldiers who have to carry out the task assigned to them as well as possible," she says.

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Read this article in Norwegian at forskning.no

Translated by: Glenn Ostling

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