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

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