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The Agitator: IHL permits limited reprisal attacks against civilians

An oft-stated axiom of international humanitarian law is that civilians can never be targeted in armed conflict, enshrined by rules 48, 51(2) and 52(2) of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions.  The International Committee for the Red Cross study of customary law affirms that under customary law civilians can not be targeted.

The London Blitz

The London Blitz

However, the United Kingdom issued a “reprisal” reservation to the basic AP1 rules when it signed the convention in 1998, a reservation clearly based on its experience with the German bombing of London in World War II.   During the so-called “Blitz”, Germany indiscriminately bombed London for 76 straight nights (known as the Blitz).  Prior to the war, PM Chamberlain stated that aerial bombing of residential areas was clearly illegal, but once the Blitz started and with Germany posing an existential threat, the UK war department explicitly chose to target German residential areas rather than military targets.  The UK was clearly on the horns of a dilemma: its RAF bombers were suffering catastrophic losses when they attempted to bomb well-defended military targets in Germany.    The only viable way for RAF bombers to bomb Germany targets was to focus on civilian infrastructure in residential areas that was less heavily defended.   Of course, that meant killing lots of German civilians.

The Blitz dilemma was the basis of the 1998 reservation which reserved Britain’s limited right to target enemy civilian targets if UK citizens were being attacked.  The reservation states the UK must issue a formal warning to the adverse party first, and civilian-directed force will only commence if the warning is disregarded.  Also, the force used must be proportional to the violence to which it responds.  Finally, the right of reprisal ends once the adversary ceases its attacks.

So what do we make of the reprisal reservation?  The UK’s experience cannot be summarily dismissed, but what does it mean for humanitarian law?  Can it be argued that the right of reprisal exists in IHL?  Are there examples of state practice?  I.e., is it an argument that it was implicitly invoked by Israel in Operation Cast Lead or Sri Lanka in its war against the Tamils?  Both states were facing enemies that targeted civilians.  Lastly, what level of violence does IHL require a state to endure when facing an enemy that targets civilians?

3 Responses to “The Agitator: IHL permits limited reprisal attacks against civilians”

  1. the absurdist says:

    Dear Mr. Agitator:
    The question i have for you is what is the point of the geneva conventions/intl. humanitarian law? Is it to somehow guide warring parties as to what is “legal” when it comes to armed conflict? Is it to guide these warring parties as to how to kill “legally”? Are those not absurd goals? In talking to those who have fought and killed in conflicts only one thing is clear – war is hell. If one warring party engages in atrocities against a civilian population how can the international community thru the geneva conventions/intl. humanitarian law suggest that that population not fight fire with fire but instead limit itself to the “legal” waging of war/killing of others?

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  2. Dear Absurdist,

    These are not absurd goals. While behaviors cannot change immediately, regulations change behavior over time and that effect is evident with the law of war. Of course, there will be continued flagrant violations. But over time hopefully those will lessen.

    Thanks for the comment.

    David

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    • Jon Bellish says:

      “If one warring party engages in atrocities against a civilian population how can the international community thru the geneva conventions/intl. humanitarian law suggest that that population not fight fire with fire but instead limit itself to the “legal” waging of war/killing of others?”

      This is essentially the argument that the Agitator is making – that IHL allows a state to “fight fire with fire” where the enemy “engages in atrocities against a civilian population” in the form of a limited reprisal attack.

      Also, if you take into account the inherently political nature of international law, the absurdity you point out gets flipped on its head. The goal of ending all armed conflict in every corner of the world becomes absurd, and IHL’s goal of minimizing unnecessary pain and suffering among civilians and POWs begins to look quire reasonable.

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