If The Enemy Targets Civilians, We Can Too

If an enemy targets civilians, such as by planting bombs on buses and airplanes, attacking shopping centers, festivals and so forth, it’s tempting for the victims to feel entitled to respond in kind. Why should our country follow the laws of war and distinguish between combatants and civilians, when they blatantly disregard those rules?!


In fact, the threat of reprisal is one way countries have tried to insure that their enemies follow the laws of war. If an army knows that if it targets civilians or mistreats prisoners, its enemy will do the same, there may be a deterrent affect that prevents this from happening.

Unfortunately, reprisals often don’t work as intended. Instead of compelling the enemy to change its ways, reprisals more often just start an unending cycle of violence. One side believes it has been wronged and takes revenge. The other side sees that as unprovoked and takes its own revenge, and so on indefinitely. This can lead to total, indiscriminate war with endless civilian suffering.

If an army resorts to targeting civilians as reprisal against terrorists, that army is essentially adopting the methods of the terrorists themselves. This allows the terrorist group to gain international sympathy by broadcasting photos of their innocent victims and may legitimize their tactics.

Finally, targeting enemy civilians also may have the effect of increasing hatred and hardening attitudes, creating future generations of enemies and terrorists. In spite of the obvious temptation to take revenge or strike an immediate hard blow against the other side, it’s unlikely this will be the way to achieve lasting peace or security.

Human Rights Are Inviolate

Targeting civilians may also still be morally wrong, even when the enemy is doing it. Many understand human rights to be inviolate, stemming from a person’s basic humanity, and not dependent on what any other person or group says or does. Even if a person’s government or military commits terrible crimes, each civilian is still entitled to basic rights as an individual. No one may be subjected to collective punishment or be killed in order to make a political point.

Law Regarding Reprisals Against Civilians

In 1929, in the aftermath of World War I, a treaty called The Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War outlawed reprisals against prisoners or war.

After World War II, the Geneva Conventions added the wounded, sick, and shipwrecked, along with personnel, buildings, and equipment related to their care, to the list of targets against which reprisals are absolutely forbidden.

In 1977, an additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions outlawed reprisals against the entire civilian population.

The 1977 protocol has been ratified by 174 states.  However, many notable countries have refused, including the United States, Israel, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Turkey. The blanket prohibition on civilian reprisals is cited as a key reason.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, after a careful and extensive study, concluded that Protocol I is unacceptable from the point of view of military operations. The reasons . . . include the fact . . . that it eliminates significant remedies in cases where an enemy violates the Protocol. The total elimination of the right of reprisal, for example, would hamper the ability of the United States to respond to an enemy’s intentional disregard of the limitations established in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 or Protocol I, for the purpose of deterring such disregard. (ICRC notes to Protocol I))

The US Naval Handbook states:

A reprisal is an enforcement measure under the law of armed conflict consisting of an act which would otherwise be unlawful but which is justified as a response to the unlawful acts of an enemy. The sole purpose of a reprisal is to induce the enemy to cease its illegal activity and to comply with the law of armed conflict. 

To be valid, a reprisal action must conform to the following criteria:

  • It must respond to illegal acts of warfare committed by an adversary government, its military commanders, or combatants for which the adversary is responsible. Anticipatory reprisal is not authorized.
  • Its purpose must be to cause the enemy to cease its unlawful activity. Therefore, acts taken in reprisal should be brought to the attention of the enemy in order to achieve maximum effectiveness. Reprisal must never be taken for revenge.

Although reprisal is lawful when the foregoing requirements are met, there is always the risk that it will trigger retaliatory escalation (counter-reprisals) by the enemy. The United States has historically been reluctant to resort to reprisal for just this reason (Click here for source in the International Committee of the Red Cross database.)

The U.K. ratified the 1977 protocol outlawing reprisals against civilians, but with the following reservation making clear that it reserves the right to carry out reprisals against civilians should an enemy attack its own:

The obligations. . .are accepted on the basis that any adverse party against which the United Kingdom might be engaged will itself scrupulously observe those obligations. If an adverse party makes serious and deliberate attacks. . .against the civilian population or civilians or against civilian objects. . . the United Kingdom will regard itself as entitled to take measures otherwise prohibited by the Articles in question to the extent that it considers such measures necessary for the sole purpose of compelling the adverse party to cease committing violations. . .

(Source: ICRC notes to Protocol I).

Arguments Reprisals Against Civilians May Sometimes Be the Best Way

Reconsidering Reprisals

A lengthy, scholarly article arguing that limited reprisals agaisnt civilians may actually be the most effective and humane way to fight terrorism. By Michael Newton from Duke University Law School.

Maybe if Limited Carefully

The threat of punishment by the International Criminal Court has not succeeded at deterring attacks against civilians. Without the threat of reprisals, what else can countries do? An argument that reprisals against civilians may sometimes be moral and necessary, and a suggestion on how such reprisals should be restricted to a limited subset of civilian targets. By Dr. Robbie Sabel writing in the Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law.

Reprisals In the Last Century

How International Law Has Changed

A lengthy, detailed, and scholarly summation of how international law regarding civilian reprisals has changed over the last century. Considers distinctions between different types of wars and weapons. By Shane Darcy printed in the Military Law Review.

World War I

During World War I prisoners of war were frequently abused in retaliation for abuses committed by the other side. An examination of how negotiations led the way to better conditions and repatriation of some prisoners from both sides. From Humanitarian Law and policy.

Human Rights Haggadah Blog

Human Rights and Statues

Recently there has been much argument over statues of historical figures that owned slaves or carried out other such injustice. People argue that honoring these

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