The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.


Bombardment is an accepted method of warfare; however, there are rules limiting its use. These rules are enumerated clearly in Protocol I Additional to the 1949 Geneva Conventions (Additional Protocol I), which elaborates on provisions in the Geneva Conventions stating that “extensive destruction . . . not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly” (GCI Art. 50, GCII Art. 51, GCIII Art. 130, and GCIV Art. 147) constitutes a grave breach of the Convention. Additional Protocol I clearly prohibits bombardments and attacks on certain specific targets.

Indiscriminate bombardment and that whose primary purpose is to spread terror among the civilian population are also specifically prohibited (API Art. 51). International law considers that a bombardment is indiscriminate if it “treats as a single military objective a number of clearly separated and distinct military objectives located in a city, town, village or other area containing a similar concentration of civilians or civilian objects” (API Art. 51.5.a).

Attacks on the following targets are prohibited:

  • the civilian population as such (API Art. 51 and APII Art. 13)
  • medical units (GCI Art. 19, GCII Art. 23, GCIV Art. 18, API Art. 12, and APII Art. 11)
  • cultural objects and places of worship (API Art. 53)
  • objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population (API Art. 54)
  • works and installations containing dangerous forces (API Art. 56)
  • non-defended localities and demilitarized zones (GCIV Art. 15 and API Arts. 59, 60)

Furthermore, camps for prisoners of war and places of internment must have shelters against air bombardments and other hazards of war (GCIII Art. 23 and GCIV Art. 88).

The statute of the International Criminal Court that was adopted on 17 July 1998, and entered into force on 1 July 2002, reaffirms that such attacks constitute war crimes when committed in international or non-international armed conflicts. However, it is worth noting that the Rome Statute only specifically uses the word bombardment in relation to international conflicts (Arts. 8.2.b.v of ICC Statute).

AttacksMethods(and means) of warfareProtected objects and propertyProtected personsWarWeapons

For Additional Information: Mulinen, Frederic de. Handbook on the Law of War for Armed Forces . Geneva: ICRC, 1989.

Roscini, Marco. “Targeting and Contemporary Aerial Bombardment.” International and Comparative Law Quarterly 54, no. 2 (2005): 411–44.

Article also referenced in the following category :