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Casus belli (pronounced /'keɪsəs 'bɛlaɪ/) is a Latin expression meaning the justification for acts of war. Casus means "incident", "rupture" or indeed "case", while belli means "of war". It is usually distinguished from casus foederis, with casus belli being used to refer to offenses or threats directly against a nation, and casus foederis to refer to offenses or threats to another, allied, nation with which the justifying nation is engaged in a mutual defense treaty, such as NATO.[1][2]

It is sometimes misspelled and mispronounced as "causus belli" since this resembles the English "cause" (and a different Latin word, causa {cause}). "Casus belli" is sometimes pronounced this way because the term is used with the meaning of "cause for war", instead of "case of war" (notice that "case" comes from Latin "casus"). The OED, however, gives the pronunciation above.

The term came into wide usage in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the writings of Hugo Grotius (1625), Cornelius van Bynkershoek (1737), and Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui (1748), among others, and the rise of the political doctrine of jus ad bellum or "just war theory".[3][4] Informal usage varies beyond its technical definition to refer to any "just cause" a nation may claim for entering into a conflict. As such, it has been used both retroactively to describe situations in history before the term came into wide usage and in the present day when describing situations when war has not been formally declared.

Formally, a government would lay out its reasons for going to war, as well as its intentions in prosecuting it and the steps that might be taken to avert it. In so doing, the government would attempt to demonstrate that it was going to war only as a last resort (ultima Ratio) and that it in fact possessed "just cause" for doing so. In theory international law today allows only three situations as legal cause to go to war: out of self-defense, defense of an ally under a mutual defense pact, or sanctioned by the UN. Any war for another cause is considered illegal and those who engage in it subject to prosecution for a war crime.

Proschema (plural proschemata) is the Greek equivalent term. The stated reasons may or may not be the actual reason for waging the war (prophasis, πρὸφασις). The term was first popularized by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, who identified fear, honor, and interest as the three primary real reasons that wars are waged, while proschemata commonly play up nationalism or fearmongering (as opposed to rational or reasonable fears).


Reasons for use

Countries need a public justification for attacking another country. This justification is needed to galvanize internal support for the war, as well as gain the support of potential allies.

In the post World War Two era, the UN Charter prohibits signatory countries from engaging in war except 1) as a means of defending themselves against aggression, or 2) unless the UN as a body has given prior approval to the operation. The UN also reserves the right to ask member nations to intervene against non-signatory countries which embark on wars of aggression. In effect, this means that countries in the modern era must have a plausible casus belli for initiating military action, or risk UN sanctions or intervention.

Historical examples

This section outlines a number of the more famous or controversial cases of casus belli which have occurred in modern times.

World War I

A political assassination provided the trigger that led to the outbreak of World War I. The assassination in June 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria at Sarajevo in Austria-Hungary by Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist from Bosnia, Austrian subject and member of Young Bosnia, was used by Austria-Hungary as a casus belli for declaring war on Serbia.

The Russian Empire started to mobilise its troops in defence of its ally Serbia, which resulted in the German Empire declaring war on Russia in support of its ally Austria-Hungary. Very quickly, after the involvement of France, the Ottoman Empire and the British Empire, five of the six great European powers became involved in the first European general war since the Napoleonic Wars. (see Causes of World War I)

World War II

In his autobiography Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler had advocated in the 1920s a policy of lebensraum ("living space") for the German people, which in practical terms meant German territorial expansion into Eastern Europe.

In August 1939, in order to implement the first phase of this policy, Germany's Nazi government under Hitler's leadership staged the Gleiwitz incident, which was used as a casus belli for the invasion of Poland the following September. Since Poland's allies Britain and France honoured their alliance and subsequently declared war on Germany, the invasion of Poland marks the start of World War II.

In 1941, acting once again in accordance with the policy of lebensraum, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, using the casus belli of pre-emptive war to justify the act of aggression.

The Soviet Union also employed a manufactured casus belli during World War II. In November 1939, shortly after the outbreak of hostilities between Germany, Britain and France, the Soviet Union staged the shelling of the Russian village of Mainila, which it blamed on the Finns. This manufactured incident was then used as a casus belli for the invasion of Finland. In 1998, Russian President Boris Yeltsin admitted that the invasion had in fact constituted a Soviet war of aggression.

Six-Day War

A casus belli played a prominent role during the Six-Day War of 1967. The Israeli government had a short list of casus belli, acts that it would consider provocations justifying armed retaliation. The most important was a blockade of the Straits of Tiran leading into Eilat, Israel's only port to the Red Sea, through which Israel received much of its oil. After several border incidents between Israel and Egypt's allies Syria and Jordan, Egypt expelled UNEF peacekeepers from the Sinai Peninsula, established a military presence at Sharm el-Sheikh, and announced a blockade of the straits, prompting Israel to cite its casus belli in opening hostilities against Egypt.

Vietnam War

Many historians have suggested that the Gulf of Tonkin Incident was a manufactured pretext for the Vietnam War. North Vietnamese Naval officials have publicly stated that the USS Maddox was never fired on by North Vietnamese naval forces.[5][6] The movie "The Fog of War" contains an admission from former US Defense Secretary at the time Robert McNamara that the Gulf of Tonkin Incident "never happened".

Deniability played favorably into the propaganda efforts of North Vietnam throughout the war, and for some years to follow. However, the PAVN Museum in Hanoi found it irresistible to proudly display "Part of a torpedo boat... which successfully chased away the USS Maddox August, [sic] 2nd 1964".

1982 Israeli Invasion of Lebanon

The casus belli cited by Israel for its June 1982 invasion of Lebanon was the attempted assassination of the Israeli Ambassador in London, which the Israeli government blamed on the PLO (although the attempt had actually been made by the PNLM, a Palestinian splinter group implacably opposed to the PLO).[7] In reality however, the invasion had long been planned by the Israelis,[8] who were concerned about the growing power of the PLO in Lebanon.

Turkey and Greece

In 1995, The Turkish Parliament issued a casus belli against Greece in reaction to an enacted extension of Greek territorial waters from 6 nautical miles (11 km) to 12 nautical miles (22 km) from the coast (See Aegean dispute).[9]

War on Terror

The casus belli for the Bush administration's conceptual War on Terror, which resulted in the 2001 Afghan war and the 2003 Iraq war, was the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, The Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia and the apparently intended attack on the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C..

2003 Invasion of Iraq

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it cited non-compliance with the terms of cease-fire for the 1990-1991 Gulf War, as well as planning in 1997 the attempted assasinations of former President George Bush and then-sitting President Bill Clinton as its stated casus belli.[10].

Cited by the Bush administration was Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program. The administration claimed that Iraq had not conformed with its obligation to disarm under past UN Resolutions, and that Saddam Hussein was actively attempting to acquire a nuclear weapons capability as well as enhance an existing arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed a plenary session of the United Nations Security Council on February 5, 2003 citing these reasons as justification for military action.[11]

Subsequent to the invasion, a US government-sponsored report concluded that although Saddam Hussein had intended to resume WMD production once the Gulf War sanctions were lifted, none of the alleged WMD stockpiles were found during or after the subsequent invasion.[12]

See also



  • Vidal, Gore. Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia. Hardcover ed. Avalon Group.


  1. ^ bynkershoek, Cornelius van (2007). A Treatise On The Law Of War. Lawbook Exchange. ISBN 1584775661.  
  2. ^ bynkershoek, Cornelius van (1995). On Questions of Public Law. William S. Hein & Company. ISBN 1575882582.   Online copy.
  3. ^ Russell, Frederick H. (1997). The Just War in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 052129276x.  
  4. ^ Childress, James F. (1978). "Just-War Theories: The Bases, Interrelations, Priorities, and Functions of Their Criteria". Theological Studies 39: 427–45.  
  5. ^ "McNamara asks Giap: What happened in Tonkin Gulf?". (November 9, 1995). Associated Press
  6. ^ CNN Cold War - Interviews: Robert McNamara, retrieved January 23, 2007
  7. ^ Sachar, Howard M.: A History of Israel from the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, Alfred A. Knopf 1996, ISBN 0-679-76563-8, page 904.
  8. ^ "As early as January 1982, therefore, with Begin's approval, Sharon paid a secret visit to Beirut...By the following month...operational plans for the offensive were well advanced. Israeli liaison officers repeatedly visited Beirut to coordinate strategy with the Phalange. In the end, the Lebanon expedition would be the most thoroughly prepared campaign in Israel's history." - Sachar, A History of Israel, p. 903.
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1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

CASUS BELLI, the technical term for cases in which a state holds itself justified in making war, if a certain course to which it objects is persisted in. Interference with the full exercise of a nation's rights or independence, an affront to its dignity, an unredressed injury, are instances of casus belli. Most of the new compulsory treaties of arbitration entered into by Great Britain and other states exclude from their application cases affecting the "vital interests" or "national honour" of the contracting states. These may therefore be considered as a sort of definition of casus belli in so far as the high contracting parties to them are concerned.

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