Targeting Civilians When There Is No Other Way

One reason often used to justify targeting civilians is that due to differences in power or available weapons there is no other way. A small rebel group fighting against a modern army might say, “If we had guided missiles or airplanes from which we could drop laser guided bombs we would. But car bombs, home made rockets, random shootings, driving vehicles through crowds, or hijacking airplanes and crashing them into buildings is all we have the means for. Civilians are all we can target. We believe our cause is just, so it must be justified to use the weapons that we have since otherwise we wouldn’t be able to fight.”

But the Geneva Conventions clearly prohibit targeting civilians in all these manners. The use of weapons that cannot be aimed to distinguish between military and civilian targets is also prohibited. This specifically includes situations in which no other weapons or means of attack are available.

This is necessary because in most 21st century conflicts there is a great imbalance of power. Any rebel or gorilla army could us reasoning like this to justify attacks against civilians, so this line of reasoning would allow terrorism in nearly every war.A reason often used to justify targeting civilians is that there is no other way. Our nation is under attack, at war, suffering exploitation or occupation, and civilians are the only target available to us. If we could avoid harming civilians, we would. But we can’t be expected to just do nothing in the face of what’s happening to us. So if there’s no way we can avoid harming civilians, that’s what we’re going to do.

Terrorism

This is the most common justification for terrorism.  A small rebel group fighting against a modern army might say, “If we had guided missiles or airplanes from which we could drop laser guided bombs we would. But car bombs, home made rockets, random shootings, driving vehicles through crowds, or hijacking airplanes and crashing them into buildings is all we have the means for. Civilians are all we can target. We believe our cause is just, so it must be justified to use the weapons that we have since otherwise we wouldn’t be able to fight.”

But the Geneva Conventions clearly prohibit targeting civilians in all these manners. The use of weapons that cannot be aimed to distinguish between military and civilian targets is also prohibited. This specifically includes situations in which no other weapons or means of attack are available.

Human Shields

Advanced armies that can accurately target weapons to hit precise military targets are often faced with human shields. This is when an enemy mixes its military personnel or equipment with civilians in order to make it impossible to launch a military attack without killing civilians too.

It’s tempting to take an attitude that the responsibility for whatever harm is caused to this human shields is the fault of whatever group is using them for that purpose. ‘We have the right to defend ourselves against these gorillas. We’re not targeting civilians on purpose, but if our enemies placed them right where we need to strike we still have the right to keep defending ourselves if the enemy has left us no other way.’

Nevetheless, the ethical issue is not so clear cut. Does it make a difference if the civilians volunteered to be human shields to help their army, or if they are being used as human shields against their will and the enemy army has forced them to do so? Does the principle of proportionality still apply? Does the attacker have to weigh the significance of the military target against the number of human shields? 

Terrorism

Focus on Israel

Always Wrong?

A discussion in the Atlantic magazine focusing on how Palestinian terrorists justify killing Israeli civilians because that is the only method they have for fighting Israel, and why that’s wrong.

A report from Human Rights Watch explaining in detail why Palestinian terrorism is a war crime in spite of the Palestinian claim that terrorism is the only means they have of fighting Israel’s occupation.

An explanation and defense of the position that terrorism must always be a regarded as a war crime, no matter what the cause. From The Financial Times.

Human Shields

Civilians' Motivation

An explanation of how the Israeli supreme court uses the motivation of civilians for shielding military targets to help determine their status. Israel believes that if civilians deliberately choose to defend military targets they should lose their civilian status. From Doctors Without Borders.

An Impartial Analysis

An impartial analysis of the ethical issues raised by the use of human shields by guerilla armies to prevent attacks by better equiped militaries. From Ethics and International Affairs.

Ethical Issues

A discussion of the ethical issues involved in fighting an enemy that makes use of human shields. An emphasis on Israel and Hamas. From Opinio Juris.

Trump's Statements

An examination of the legality of attacking military targets protected by human shields in light of Donald Trump’s assertion that the U.S. military is fighting a ‘politically correct’ war and must ‘take out terrorists’ families.’ From The Conversation.

Human Rights Haggadah Blog

Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea

In The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea, Vannak Prum tells how he was taken from Cambodia and enslaved for years on a Thai fishing boat. His story shows how easily even today people can still be taken as slaves.

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