Syrian soldiers Homs 311.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Due to the expansion of urban spaces as well as changes in methods and means of
warfare, the focus of combat in contemporary armed conflicts is continually
shifting from the field to the city. The armed conflicts in Gaza and Lebanon in
which Israel was involved are illustrative of this trend.
densely populated areas gives rise to a series of operational, moral and legal
challenges. Such challenges arise not only for the belligerent parties, but also
for other entities operating in the war zone, including the International
Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which is tasked with protecting and assisting
the victims of war and which endeavors to ensure that the law applicable in
armed conflict, international humanitarian law, is respected.
questions arise in this context: to what extent, if at all, is an army required
to risk its own personnel in order to spare the lives of civilians in
enemy-controlled territory? What methods and means of warfare may be used in
These questions are inter-related. The concern for soldiers’
wellbeing creates an incentive to strike the enemy from afar using means such as
artillery fire or aerial bombardment. When the armed forces are nevertheless
required to approach the enemy, they will have an interest to employ methods and
means of warfare that reduce the risks to which they are exposed as much as
possible. This can result in practices such as the use of preventative
fire against all persons suspected of being hostile and the screening of
soldiers with means like white phosphorous. However, the use of such methods and
means of warfare in densely populated areas heightens the risk that civilians
will come to harm.
Moreover, when many civilians are caught in the
conflict zone there is often an inverse relation in the distribution of risks –
the more risk the soldiers assume, the less the threat for civilians, and
Since every human life has inherent value, an army operating
in populated areas may not give absolute preference to its soldiers over the
civilians on the other side. For the same reason, it is also clear that an army
must care for the lives of its soldiers and may not treat them as cannon fodder.
The difficult question that must be decided is how to balance between the
competing values – to what extent must an army risk its soldiers to spare
civilians on the opposing side?
Answering this question necessarily requires the
exercise of discretion, taking into account the concrete circumstances of each
individual case. However, the scope of this discretion is delimited by the norms
of international humanitarian law. Under this law, each party to an armed
conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and civilian objects on
the one hand and combatants and military objectives on the other, and may only
direct its operations at the latter. Even an operation directed at a
legitimate target is prohibited if expected to cause incidental damage to
civilians which is excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military
advantage anticipated. Furthermore, the parties are required to take all
feasible precautions in order to minimize the risks to which civilians are
exposed as a consequence of their actions.
Some important operational
conclusions can be deduced from these principles.
the legitimate interest of preserving the lives of soldiers, as a general rule,
means of warfare with an expansive impact area – such as white phosphorous and
explosive weapons – must not be used in densely populated areas. While it is
true that such means of warfare are not generally unlawful in themselves, there
is a high probability that their use in densely populated areas will cause harm
to civilians in violation of core principles of international humanitarian
Second, considerations of force protection cannot justify
indiscriminate fire and do not permit deviation from the rule whereby in
situations of doubt whether a person is a civilian or combatant he must be
presumed to be a civilian and must not be targeted.
It is undeniable that
observing these rules may come at a very high price; however refusal to pay this
price betrays irreverence towards the values of human dignity and purity of arms
without which military force is void of any moral validity or legal
authority.The writer, a lawyer, is an expert on international
humanitarian law and serves as legal adviser for the Delegation of the
International Committee of the Red Cross in Israel and the Occupied Territories.
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