The Law of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law (1758)

Emmerich de Vattel

Of the Sovereign Who Wages an Unjust War

§ 183. An unjust war gives no right whatever.
HE who is engaged in war derives all his right from the justice of his cause. The unjust adversary who attacks or threatens him, — who withholds what belongs to him, — in a word, who does him an injury, — lays him under the necessity of defending himself, or of doing himself justice, by force of arms; he authorizes him in all the acts of hostility necessary for obtaining complete satisfaction. Whoever therefore takes up arms without a lawful cause, can absolutely have no right whatever: every act of hostility that he commits is an act of injustice.

§ 184. Great guilt of the sovereign who undertakes it.
He is chargeable with all the evils, all the horrors of the war: all the effusion of blood, the desolation of families, the rapine, the acts of violence, the ravages, the conflagrations, are his works and his crimes. He is guilty of a crime against the enemy, whom he attacks, oppresses, and massacres without cause: he is guilty of a crime against his people, whom he forces into acts of injustice, and exposes to danger, without reason or necessity, — against those of his subjects who are ruined or distressed by the war, — who lose their lives, their property, or their health, in consequence of it: finally, he is guilty of a crime against mankind in general, whose peace he disturbs, and to whom he sets a pernicious example. Shocking catalogue of miseries and crimes! dreadful account to be given to the King of kings, to the common Father of men! May this slight sketch strike the eyes of the rulers of nations, — of princes and their ministers! Why may not we expect some benefit from it? Are we to suppose that the great are wholly lost to all sentiments of honor, of humanity, of duty, and of religion? And, should our weak voice, throughout the whole succession of ages, prevent even one single war, how gloriously would our studies and our labor be rewarded!

§ 185. His obligations.
He who does an injury is bound to repair the damage, or to make adequate satisfaction if the evil be irreparable, and even to submit to punishment, if the punishment be necessary, either as an example, or for the safety of the party offended, and for that of human society. In this predicament stands a prince who is the author of an unjust war. He is under an obligation to restore whatever he has taken, — to send back the prisoners at his own expense, — to make compensation to the enemy for the calamities and losses he has brought on him, — to reinstate ruined families, — to repair, if it were possible, the loss of a father, a son, a husband.

§ 186. Difficulty of repairing the injury he has done.
But how can he repair so many evils? Many are in their own nature irreparable. And as to those which maybe compensated by an equivalent, where shall the unjust warrior find means to furnish an indemnification for all his acts of violence? The prince’s private property will not be sufficient to answer the demands. Shall he give away that of his subjects? — It does not belong to him. Shall he sacrifice the national lands, a part of the state? — But the state is not his patrimony (Book I. § 93): he cannot dispose of it at will. And, although the nation be, to a certain degree, responsible for the acts of her ruler, — yet (exclusive of the injustice of punishing her directly for faults of which she is not guilty), if she is responsible for her sovereign’s acts, that responsibility only regards other nations, who look to her for redress (Book I. § 40, Book II. §§ 81, 82): but the sovereign cannot throw upon her the punishment due to his unjust deeds, nor despoil her in order to make reparation for them. And, were it even in his power, would this wash away his guilt and leave him a clear conscience? Though acquitted in the eyes of the enemy, would he be so in the eyes of his people? It is a strange kind of justice which prompts a man to make reparation for his own misdeeds at the expense of a third person: this is no more than changing the object of his injustice. Weigh all these things, ye rulers of nations! and, when clearly convinced that an unjust war draws you into a multitude of iniquities which all your power cannot repair, perhaps you will be less hasty to engage in it.

§ 187. Whether the nation and the military are bound to any thing.
The restitution of conquests, of prisoners, and of all property that still exists in a recoverable state, admits of no doubt when the injustice of the war is acknowledged. The nation in her aggregate capacity, and each individual particularly concerned, being convinced of the injustice of their possession, are bound to relinquish it, and to restore every thing which they have wrongfully acquired. But, as to the reparation of any damage, are the military, the generals, officers and soldiers, obliged in conscience to repair the injuries which they have done, not of their own will, but as instruments in the hands of their sovereign? I am surprised that the judicious Grotius should, without distinction, hold the affirmative.1 It is a decision which cannot be supported, except in the case of a war so palpably and indisputably unjust, as not to admit a presumption of any secret reason of state that is capable of justifying it, — a case in politics which is nearly impossible. On all occasions susceptible of doubt, the whole nation, the individuals, and especially the military, are to submit their judgment to those who hold the reins of government, — to the sovereign: this they are bound to do by the essential principles of political society, and of government.

What would be the consequence, if, at every step of the sovereign, the subjects were at liberty to weigh the justice of his reasons, and refuse to march to a war which might to them appear unjust? It often happens that prudence will not permit a sovereign to disclose all his reasons. It is the duty of subjects to suppose them just and wise, until clear and absolute evidence tells them the contrary. When, therefore, under the impression of such an idea, they have lent their assistance in a war which is afterwards found to be unjust, the sovereign alone is guilty: he alone is bound to repair the injuries. The subjects, and in particular the military, are innocent: they have acted only from a necessary obedience. They are bound, however, to deliver up what they have acquired in such a war, because they have no lawful title to possess it. This I believe to be the almost unanimous opinion of all honest men, and of those officers who are most distinguished for honor and probity. Their case, in the present instance, is the same as that of all those who are the executors of the sovereign’s orders. Government would be impracticable if every one of its instruments was to weigh its commands, and thoroughly canvass their justice before he obeyed them. But, if they are bound by a regard for the welfare of the state to suppose the sovereign’s orders just, they are not responsible for them.


     1.    De Jure Belli et Pacis, lib. iii. cap. x.