The fundamental responsibility of political actors, in war or peace, is to work toward order. In post-conflict settings, order begins when the killing dramatically diminishes and the exercise of sovereignty by a single point of authority is established. Order extends its roots through the maturation of government capacity and services. This is rooted in the biblical notion that government is an institution ordained by God to promote order, justice, and the common good.

If wars must be fought to be able to secure peace, then the first element of restoration of peace is restoring order and normalcy to a country, society, and in some cases to a region through cooperation. But closely linked to the ability for enduring peace are the elements of justice and conciliation. Both justice and conciliation are built upon this foundation of order.[1]

Justice at war’s end has been thought of as getting one’s “just deserts,” including consideration of individual punishment for those who violate the laws of armed conflict (LOAC). When it comes to interstate war, we typically think in terms of aggressors and victims and the two key justice principles of punishment and restitution. First, however, we must recognize that even when there is an obvious aggressor, crimes may be committed by leaders and soldiers on both sides of the conflict. When it comes to the bitterness and hatred possible in the human heart, no amount of earthly justice can deal with that. Moreover, no amount of earthly justice can restore a lost loved one or fully recover lost property. In other words, we have to start from a position of humility and limits when we consider justice at war’s end.

Moreover, political justice has another limit: it should not endanger a tenuous political order. In order for average citizens to take the first halting steps in post-war peace, there must be order. However, sadly, it is not the case that there will always be justice. Moreover, we have to consider whether or not efforts at justice will deepen a weak peace or undermine it. Iraq’s post-1991 reparations disproportionately harmed basic goods and services available to Iraqi citizens, while Saddam Hussein and his henchmen partied in their pleasure palaces. By the way, the final payment to Kuwait for the 1991 invasion occurred just last month, in February 2022.

For instance, at the end of the First World War, draconian reparations were imposed on Germany and the other Central Powers. Moreover, Germany—alone—was forced to accede to a war guilt clause, taking sole responsibility for causing the war. The reparations, and especially the war guilt clause, caused seething resentment in some quarters and contributed to the rise of the Nazis. Similarly, at the end of civil wars or uncertain “pacted” democratic transitions, the opposition will often have to overlook the past misdeeds of outgoing authoritarians to guarantee an orderly transfer of power.

In such cases, has justice been met? The answer is “no” if what one expects is a full-fledge, robust justice that fully vindicates all the rights of victims. But what would be worse is to destabilize a fragile peace settlement with inflexible demands for justice.

With these limits in mind, it is appropriate to move forward to think about the two elements of justice: punishment for aggressors and restitution for victims.

Jus post bellum requires moral accountability for past actions, including the decisions by leaders that led to war (jus ad bellum).[2] In theory this means punishment. Punishment is punitive action against a wrong-doer. It may mean loss of rank or position, fines, imprisonment, exile, or death. Thus, punishment is the consequence of responsibility and an important feature of post-conflict justice. Punishment is moral in that it moves beyond an abstract conception of accountability by employing some form of sanction against those responsible for initiating violence or transgressing the war convention and violating international law.

There should be accountability for those in power who are responsible for the advent of conflict; in fact, at times our military response is an act of justice. Although the breakdown of international peace is a complex set of circumstances, in many cases war is directly attributable to the aggressive policies of a specific regime or cabal within the regime. In the case of the Russia-Ukraine war, it is hard to say that the policies of former television personality Volodymyr Zelensky caused this war, whereas Vladimir Putin has a track record of brutal violence (Chechnya, assassinations), international invasions (Georgia, Ukraine), and violations of the war convention (chemical weapons, mercenaries, cyber warfare). Leaders are responsible for peace and security, and when they abrogate that obligation it may be appropriate to hold them accountable in post-conflict settlements.

The same is true for jus in bello violations. Soldiers and their leaders on both sides are responsible for their conduct during the fighting. A richer notion of just peace is one where steps are taken to hold those who willfully broke the laws of war in combat accountable for their misdeeds. In theory this should apply to both Russians and Ukrainians. Indeed, it is worrying that some Ukrainians have so dehumanized the Russian invaders as to label the bloody bodies of dead Russian soldiers “ground meat.” We should be worried about what comes next on both sides, particularly as Russian forces deliberately target civilians. In the United States we have mechanisms to punish military personnel who violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Americans are proud that some, though not all, such violations are sanctioned.

When we move our focus away from aggressors and refocus on victims, the other jus post bellum justice consideration is restitution.[3] Michael Walzer notes that since World War II, and particularly in an era of military humanitarian intervention, “a more extensive understanding of restoration” is appropriate.[4] Of course, the destructive nature of war means that a complete return to the pre-war status quo is impossible, and may not be desirable in cases of secession or civil war. Citizens, both in and out of uniform, have died. Vast sums have been expended. Natural resources and regions of land have been used up or destroyed. Jus post bellum takes the cost of war, particularly the cost in lives and material, into account and argues that when possible, aggressors should provide restitution to the victims. This principle applies both to inter- and intra-state conflict: at war’s end, aggressors should remunerate, when appropriate and possible, the wronged.

What will that mean in the case of the Russia-Ukraine war? It is hard to imagine. At this writing, on the three-week anniversary of Russia’s invasion, I can only estimate that what will happen at some point is that Russia will retreat to a new, defensible eastern border leaving untold suffering, sadness, and destruction in its wake. It will probably be the international community that provides reconstruction funding to a battered Ukraine. The Russian people will pay, largely through sanctions and the loss of Western business. It is hard to imagine Russia agreeing to a settlement that has it paying indemnities to Ukraine: it is often the loser, not the victor who pays, as happened at the end of the Franco-Prussian War or at the end of World War I.

Finally, adding jus post bellum is moral in that its full realization will work toward reconciliation. The early just war tradition was founded on the idea of “love thy neighbor,” even in war. The principle of jus post bellum makes a normative commitment to viewing others as partners in a future peace. Such reconciliation is the ultimate step toward building a durable framework for domestic and international peace.         

In conclusion, jus post bellum justice provides us with two criteria: holding aggressors responsible (punishment) and providing some form of restoration to victims (restitution). The reality of our time suggests a very limited justice. Ukraine may be vindicated by Russia ultimately deciding to retreat eastward, but Moscow will undoubtedly leave widespread destruction in its wake. Because Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, as is its ally China, both holding veto powers, it is hard to imagine sanctions by the United Nations. It is true that an investigation has already been opened by International Criminal Court (ICC) by an ICC prosecutor in the escalation of the war in Ukraine, but that is a toothless and problematic institution outside the normal mechanisms of the United Nations. In the long run, Christians do have a forward-looking hope to a future justice accounting, but that will not do the hard work of the present to defend innocent human life and reconstruct the institutions and infrastructure of Ukraine.

[1] Eric Patterson, Ending Wars Well (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), chap. 1.

[2] Eric Patterson, ed. Ethics Beyond War’s End (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2011), chaps. 1, 8.

[3] Eric Patterson, Just War Thinking: Morality and Pragmatism in the Struggle Against Contemporary Threats (Lanham: MD: Lexington Books, 2007).

[4] Walzer, Arguing About War, 18.