How to wrap justice and peace together

par Tristan Boursier

What is a just peace? Of course, nobody pretends to make unjust peace. However, peace and justice do not necessarily go hand in hand; they can even be opposed. What is the solution for matching peace and justice? The Just Peace theory developed by Allan and Keller seems like a good place to start. 

What’s wrong between peace and justice?

If speaking about just war seems odd, because war and justice appears to have diametrically opposed ontologies, it can also be strange to use the concepts of justice and peace together. Some might even argue that ‘just peace’ is an oxymoron for at least three reasons.

First, seeking justice can hamper peace. During a peace-building process, parties to a conflict often have divergent visions of what justice is. It is this fundamental disagreement which will certainly complicate peace-making. The reason is that while there is little discussion about the meaning of peace, the same cannot be said about justice: it is a non-objective concept, often defined a priori by the parties to a conflict (Robert 2008; Allan & Keller 2008). Hence, understanding justice in a liberal way (as fairness, defined by Rawls), or in a socialist way (as communism à la Marx), does not imply the same social structuration and the same claims during peace negotiations. Even in times of peace, justice seeking can give rise to divisions within domestic jurisdictions. The particular justice claims of national minorities illustrate this point well. For instance, Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990) was caused in part by the opposed claims of Chia, Sunnites and Maronites minorities. They disagreed on the prevalent definition of justice, which favoured Maronites, embedded into the French-forged Lebanese State (Masarrah 1994). Muslim Lebanese preferred a pan-Arabic conception of justice which implied full recognition of the Arabic identity of Lebanon. On the other hand, Christian Lebanese favoured a non-Arabic identity, a hybrid identity, half-Arabic and half western. 

Second, peace between two or more actors is not a guarantee of justice. For instance, the Pax Romana certainly brought peace over the Mediterranean basin, but it did not bring a just peace. Thanks to its hegemonic position, the Roman Empire imposed its vision of justice without having to respect conquered peoples’ preferences. During Pax Romana, many rebellions erupted against this hegemonic approach. Thus, peace can be unjust if it entails imposing a definition of justice which is not shared by all the parties involved.

Finally, a very particular form of conflict can be a better warranty of justice than a wholly peaceful situation; justice can emerge from a permanent state of conflict. For instance, James Tully (2000) and Chantal Mouffe (2013) have a very skeptical view of democracy. They both put (non-violent) conflict at the core of their theory of justice.  Justice is understood as a democracy which follows agonistic rules in a political context where conflict is valuable. For Mouffe politics has an inherent adversarial dimension which cannot be resolved with negotiation, but only be institutionalized in an adversarial democratic process (Mouffe 2005, 50). 

Consequently, just peace theory is confronted to numerous critics that question its validity. 

What should be a just peace?

Two Genevan authors provide a solution (Allan & Keller 2008). For them a Just Peace is « a process whereby peace and justice are reached together by two or more parties recognizing each other’s’ identities, each renouncing some central demands, and each accepting to abide by common rules jointly developed » (Allan & Keller 2008, 195). There are four conditions to reach Just Peace.

The first criterion is essential and probably common to all theories about peace making. Named “Thin recognition”, each party has to accept the other as a human being. In the Kantian sense, this means recognizing that a person is endowed with reason and considered as an end and not a means (Allan & Keller 2008 197). In other words, the other has to be recognized as an essential and inescapable interlocutor who cannot be bypassed to resolve the conflict. Peace must be the result of a dialogue between the parties of a conflict, and not a unilateral imposition of one actor’s preferences. For instance, the peace treaty signed by France and Germany in 1940 is a good example of a peace agreement without thin recognition: Hitler imposed all his peace conditions without any respect for the political identity of France. 

The second is “Thick recognition”, which is defined as a deeper understanding of the other’s identity. « Mutual empathy – which does not necessarily entail sympathy – is crucial here. Thus, an intersubjective consensus of what each side profoundly needs to remain ‘self’, and thus, satisfied, should be developed in a Just Peace process » (Allan & Keller 2008, 97). More precisely, Allan and Keller use the work of Alexander Wendt (1999) to transpose Honneth’s concept of recognition, for international actors. From this literature, thick recognition is defined by two key concepts: understanding and identity (Allan & Keller 2017). Looking at others with empathy allows to understand the deep meaning of their actions but does not imply their legitimacy. Allan and Keller define identity as a blurry, malleable sociological and psycho-sociological variable, encompassing essential features of culture (language, usages, religion, …). The peace process of 1945 between Japan and the United States is a good example of thick recognition. Although the Japanese and Americans were harsh enemies during World War II – which made it difficult to imagine reconciliation – both parties mobilized authentic efforts in the acceptance of the other’s culture during the peace process (Clerc 2017, 51-8). The simple fact that the US did not invade Japan and did not destroy its political identity when it could have, was a good first step for thick recognition. 

Third, the Just Peace process must include renouncement, understood as a painful symbolic or material concession which is not necessarily “heavy” (Allan & Keller 2008, 201). This renouncement has to entail the withdrawal of an element a priori non-negotiable for each party. Acceptance of the continuation of the Emperor Hirohito’s reign can be identified as an example of a painful sacrifice from the American side during the peace process with Japan (Allan & Keller 2008 201-2; Clerc 2017, 59-62). This sacrifice can seem unimportant because the Emperor has no direct political power in Japan. However, as shown by Clerc, strong anti-imperialism American policy, coupled with a very hostile American opinion towards the Emperor, should have caused his dismissal, or worst, his execution (2017 59-61). 

The last condition for a Just Peace is probably the most ambitious. Named “the condition of the rule”, this condition refers to the openness and objectiveness of the Just Peace: « [Just Peace] requires explicit rules of the settlement, legitimate rules of acceptable behaviour, and objective yardsticks allowing all – both parties and outside observers or guarantors – to approve of the solution found. » (Allan & Keller 2008, 204). In order to be effective, this criterion needs to tackle the problem of achieving a cross-cultural understanding. A just peace process directs towards by shaping a common language, understood in a broad sense, close to the Krasner’s regime concept as a set of “implicit or explicit principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actors expectations converge in a given area of international relations” (1983, 2). The importance of having a common ground for a mutual understanding appears well with treaties translations.  Both French and English translations of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 (S/RES/242) imply different meanings. In the English version, demands to withdraw troops “from occupied territories”, but in the French version, the Resolution seems to involve the complete withdrawal from all occupied territories (“retrait des territoires occupés”).  Even in a broader way we can see examples of the condition of rule in international relations. The League of Nations (1919) and the United Nations Organization (1945) foundation can be seen as two bids of creating a common language throughout designing an international legal and diplomatic basis.  

Why should we use The Just Peace Theory?

First, Just Peace Theory allows to conceive justice and peace even after nefarious and egregious wars. In other words, Jus Post Bellum is possible regardless of circumstances of Jus In and Ad Bellum because the perception of actors who shape peace and justice is more important than universal and substantial conceptions of peace and justice in abstracto.« People’s perceptions, far from being of limited significance, are of utmost importance […] because the way they perceived a phenomenon shapes their reactions to it » (Clerc 2017, 106-7). That is why a just peace, according to Allan and Keller, has been achieved between Japan and the United States after the World War II.

Second, from an ethical point of view, the Just Peace Theory seems to be more valuable than other similar theories. The Just Peace Theory is morally more exigent compared to Jus post bellum described by Walzer and Kupchan, and Boulding’s Stable Peace ( Allan & Keller 2008, 90-129; Boursier 2017, 23-8). Neither include the question of justice in their foundations: For Stable Peace, « a just peace is a peace designed to last » (Williams 2012, 89); there is no substantial benefit from justice but only from stability. Furthermore, even if Just Peace Theory seems less demanding than Positive Peace or Global Care theories, it is more likely to be realized than the other theories. In the one hand, a Positive Peace has a more inclusive and global perception of justice which requires tremendous exigencies by neutralizing any form of violence during the peace process (Galtung 1980, 1996). On the other hand, some authors outlined the pitfalls of the Global Care which are resolved by the Just Peace Theory. Global Care raises the risk of reaching peace through a non-democratic process, and could limit it to restricted circle – which, in the current state of the world, could exacerbate current inequalities between rich and poor countries (Tronto 1993, 170-1).


The main contribution of the Just Peace Theory is probably the thick recognition criterion and its general integration in a pragmatic approach of international relations not affiliated with a specific IR paradigm. However, some challenges appear regarding the consistency and the grounded operationalization of the four concepts. Furthermore, some ontological issues appear when thick and thin criterion are closely examined (Boursier 2017). 

In spite of its shortcomings, the Just Peace theory remains a powerful approach. It provides a peace-making process coherently shaped by the need for justice. The Just Peace must therefore be seen as a first step towards a more applied theory. This applied theory allows to concretely guide a process of pacification that would both bring justice and be respectful of all parties. 


Allan, P. & Keller, A. (2008). What is a Just Peace?. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Allan, P. & Keller, A. (2017). Paix juste. In Quadrige (Ed.), Dictionnaire de la guerre et de la paix. Paris: Presses universitaires de France.

Boursier, T. (2017). La paix impossible : évaluation théorico-normative de la paix juste. (Mémoire de master en science politique), Université de Genève, Faculté des sciences de la société, Département de science politique et relations internationales, Genève.   

Clerc, E. (2017). « A gift from heaven »: the San Francisco Treaty as an example of a just peace despite the atomic strikes. (Master thesis, master of political science), Université de Genève, Faculté des sciences de la société, Département de science politique et relations internationales, Genève.   

Galtung, J. (1996). Peace by Peaceful Means: Peace and Conflict, Development and Civilization. London : SAGE Publications

Krasner, S. D. (Ed.). (1983). International Regimes. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Keller, A. (2004). L’Accord de Genève : un pari réaliste. Paris : Seuil.

Masarrah, A. (1994). Théorie générale du système politique libanais : essai comparé sur les fondements et les perspectives d’évolution d’un sytème consensuel de gouvernement. Paris: Cariscript.

Mouffe, C. (2005). On the Political. Abington: Routledge. 

Mouffe, C. (2013). Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically. London: Verso.

Robert, A. (2008). Just Peace: A Cause Worth Fighting For. In P. Allan & A. Keller (Ed.), What is a Just Peace? (pp. 52-89). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tilly, C., & Tarrow, S. (2015). Politique (s) du conflit: De la grève à la révolution. 2e édition augmentée d’une préface. Paris : Presses de sciences po.

Tronto, J. C. (1993). Moral Boundaries : A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. New York: Routledge.

Tully, J. (2000). Struggles over Recognition and Distribution. Constellations, 7(4), 469-82. 

Wendt, A. (2001). Social Theory of International Politics (Reprint ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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