Do ‘moral war’ requirements make the UN immoral?

Applying a moral standard to the rules of engagement in which only one side is expected to adhere to may be immoral.

IDF soldiers in urban warfare exercise 370 (photo credit: IDF Spokesman’s Office)
IDF soldiers in urban warfare exercise 370
(photo credit: IDF Spokesman’s Office)
In 1864, William Tecumseh Sherman, a Union General during the US Civil War, began what became known as the "March to the Sea," a scorched-earth military campaign through enemy territory. The campaign covered five weeks, during which time Sherman destroyed civilian industrial capacity, infrastructure and most civilian property that he crossed. His troops burnt crops and killed livestock.
The march was controversial but its brutality is said by some to have contributed to the end of the American civil war.
In light of this description, was Sherman’s march morally correct?
General Sherman is credited with coining the expression, "war is hell." But today, war is more than "hell;" it is an ethicist’s laboratory.
In the Arab-Israeli conflict, war is also an ethical battlefield where morality becomes a political weapon for some.
Man tries to make war ethical. Ethics in war seem counterintuitive, but because war is such a horrific notion to begin with, establishing rules of behavior can, at least in theory, benefit both sides. The ethical challenge then, is how to create rules that both sides accept.
Ethicists have learned that rules can work—for the most part—when you view your enemy first as a human being, one with whom you share a moral identity and with whom you may even conduct business with after the war is over.
But when you view your enemy as less than human, war conventions are rarely applied (see “Just war theory [the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy],” Alexander Moseley,, 2009-02-10).
This is the problem with the Arab-Israeli conflict. Arabs see Jews as less-than-human. Arab media, politicians and clergy publically dehumanize Jews. If UN officials argue that such attitudes do not remove ethical responsibility from Israel, ethicists can nonetheless make the case that Arab behavior in war—founded on the dehumanization of its enemy—actually changes the rules of war.
Should dehumanization play a role in evaluating human rights violations committed during a time of war? In other words, if one side dehumanizes the other and then acts immorally (such as violating human rights or refusing to obey the rules of war), does each side deserve the same level of human rights protection?
Many ethicists—and virtually all human rights advocates—reject the dehumanization question and take an absolute stand: even as one side breaks the rules (using human shields, for example), the other side is still morally obligated to obey the rules.
If that’s the case, the question then becomes, is it moral to insist on a one-sided obligation?
The question is important since absolute standards do not promote moral behavior in war. Instead, they create a foundation for interests that are political rather than moral.
For some, this is exactly what happened with the publication of the UN’s Goldstone Report in 2009, following an Operation Cast lead in Gaza. Both Hamas and Israel were identified as human rights violators. But the report became a political tool to demonize Israel—while Hamas’ violations were recorded but ignored.
The anti-Israel political aftermath of the Goldstone Report is a case-study of what happens when morality is managed by a political agenda. It is also an example of morality (human rights) being used for an immoral end (ennobling terrorism).
It is, in other words, an example of morality being used to empower immoral behavior.
Applying an unbalanced moral standard to war (where, as a result, one side is demonized for violations) could in fact be considered immoral. Ethicists’ discussions of moral behavior in war depends upon the question of what is "just." Giving one side in conflict an unjust advantage (in this case, by essentially exempting them from moral standards) breaches the ethicists’ commitment to that sense of "just-ness."
The first imperative is to determine who is morally responsible for protecting civilians. But this cannot be done to the disadvantage of the side that upholds the rules. That would not be moral or "just."
The UN, however, appears to work with a rigid moral standard for war rules, even in cases where one side refuses to accept that standard. Common sense suggests that if one side rejects all conventions and uses human shields and civilian casualties to promote its success at the expense of the enemy, the moral responsibility should lie with that side—because, for one thing, it is they who control those civilians. In war, each side must be held morally accountable for what it controls and not for what its enemy controls.
This is not how the UN sees the Arab-Israel conflict. For the UN, Israel is the primary violator of human rights, even when Hamas uses its population for human shields and to hide rocket-launches.
According to the accepted rules of war, Israel has a just cause for its 2012 attack against Gaza - namely, self defense. But if Israel obeys the rules and refrains always from harming illegally placed human shields, or avoids military targets because they have been deliberately established within civilian population centers and insists that it will kill only those who wear identifiable military uniforms, then Israel can never hope to win that war. In fact, it could hardly fire a shot for fear of killing civilians.
Even worse for Israel, modern ethical rules are so exact that they deny a war’s morality outright if there is no chance for a beneficial outcome. If Israel initiates a war it cannot prosecute, it initiates one that does not have a potentially beneficial outcome and therefore initiates an immoral war.
Rules that have been designed to mollify the horrors of war now prevent Israel from protecting its citizens which, according to those same rules, should be a legitimate cause for war. These rules create an impossible moral catch-22. If Israel fights, it loses. If she doesn’t fight, it loses.
Ethicists have created a monster. By hoping to achieve morality in war, they have in fact done just the opposite: they empower the immoral and indeed, the savage, by denying a sovereign power the right to defend itself.