The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

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

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Military Objectives

Military objectives are objects that, by their nature, location, purpose, or use, make an effective contribution to military action, and whose total or partial destruction, capture, or neutralization offers a definite military advantage (API Art. 52, Rule 8 of the 2005 ICRC customary IHL study).

The definition of a military objective is a crucial part of the mechanism for protecting civilians in times of conflict. There are two cumulative conditions that complement each other:

  • The nature, the place, the purpose, or the use of the object must effectively contribute to military action. Therefore, the civilian or military nature of an object depends on the effect this object has on the course of the conflict.
  • The destruction of the object—in whole or in part—capturing it, or neutralizing it must show a specific military advantage. Hence, attacks that will result in solely unspecified or potential advantage are prohibited.

In case of doubt concerning an object that is normally used for civilian purposes—such as a house or other dwelling, a place of worship, or a school—parties to a conflict must assume that the object in question is not being used for military purposes (API Art. 52.3). In order for the attack to be considered legitimate, it must be shown that it was indeed used for military purpose and that the civil destructions remain proportional.

At all times, humanitarian law establishes that military commanders have the obligation to respect a number of precautions in the conduct of military operations, so as to ensure the protection of civilians. For instance, these precautions consist in prohibiting excessive use of force and doing “everything feasible to verify that the objectives to be attacked are neither civilians nor civilian objects” and in “minimizing incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, and damage to civilian objects” (API Art. 57).

Attacks that are not directed at a specific military objective are prohibited, as are those employing methods or means of combat that cannot be directed at a specific military objective or are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction (API Art. 51.4).

As a corollary to this, the presence or movements of the civilian population may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations and, in particular, to shield military objectives from attacks (API Art. 51.7).

Furthermore, works or installations containing dangerous forces (namely, dams, dikes, and nuclear electricity-generating stations) must not be the target of attacks, even if they are military objectives (API Art. 56, APII Art. 15).

A particular difficulty appears where civilian objects, namely, infrastructure and buildings (roads, schools, factories, electrical fittings, radio and TV installations), are temporarily used for military purpose or are used for both civilian and military purpose. These are dual-use objects; when they fulfill the two cumulative conditions, they may be considered legitimate military targets if additional specific conditions are respected: it is mandatory to take necessary measures before the attack to ensure that civilians are evacuated. In addition, the attack must not create disproportionate harm to non-combatants. ▸ AttacksProportionality

The key issue here is to ensure that the destruction of the object is indeed due to its military use rather than to terrorize civilians or weaken their morale. The ad hoc International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) spelled out the principles of international law on this issue when it gave its opinion on the NATO bombing of the Serbian TV and radio facilities. It insisted that civilians, civilian objects, and civilian morale as such are not legitimate military objectives. It also stressed the fact that although the media may disseminate propaganda, this does not make its installations a legitimate target. However, where broadcast facilities were used solely to incite hatred and disseminate propaganda, this may have justified their destruction (ICTY, Final Report to the Prosecutor by the Committee Established to Review the NATO Bombing Campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia , 8 June 2000, paras. 47, 55, 74, and 76).

AttacksDuty of commandersHuman shieldsMethods (and means) of warfareMilitary necessityProportionalityProtected objects and propertyTerror

Jurisprudence

The ICTY considered the lawfulness of the NATO bombing campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999 and looked at the definition of the concept of military objectives in comparison to other notions ( Final Report to the Prosecutor by the Committee Established to Review the NATO Bombing Campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, available at http://www.un.org/icty/pressreal/nato061300.htm , paras. 45, 55, 74, and 76). The ICTY decided that the generally accepted definition was the one given by Article 52 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions. This definition has two elements: (1) the nature, location, purpose, or use of the goods must make an effective contribution to military action; and (2) their total or partial destruction, capture, or neutralization must offer a definite military advantage in the circumstances ruling at the time. With this definition, informed and unprejudiced observers—as well as decision makers in times of conflicts—should be able to decide whether an object is properly called military. This may be simple in straightforward situations. However, there may be room for debate in situations where goods are used for both civilian and potentially military purpose (e.g., communication technology, transport goods, petrochemical items, and some types of factories). Similarly, the application of the definition may vary according to the scope and the objectives of a conflict—while such scope and objectives may themselves change during the conflict. The ICTY explained the notion of dual-use objects and whether attacks on such objects were lawful (case of the bombing of Serbian radio and TV by NATO). It confirmed that civilian morale as such is not a legitimate military objective. If the media are used to incite crimes, as in Rwanda, they can become legitimate military objectives. However, if that effect is merely to foster support for the war effort, the media are not legitimate military objectives. The ICTY further added that, although the Additional Protocol I definition of military objective is not beyond criticism, it provides the contemporary standard that must be used when attempting to determine the lawfulness of particular attacks. The definition is generally accepted as part of customary law, and applies even to States that have not ratified Additional Protocol I (paras. 36–37, 42).

In the Blaskic Case , the Trial Chamber of the ICTY (3 March 2000, paras. 401, 509–510) decided that, while armed people resisting armed attacks were present within the civil population, such population continues enjoying protection as civilians and their village is not a military objective.

In the Kupreskic Case (14 January 2000), the Trial Chamber of the ICTY considered that “even if it can be proved that the Muslim population of Ahmici was not entirely civilian but comprised some armed elements, still no justification would exist for widespread and indiscriminate attacks against civilians” (para. 513).

For Additional Information: Amnesty International. “Collateral Damage” or Unlawful Killings? Violations of the Laws of War by NATO during Operation Allied Force . June 2000. Available at http://www.amnesty.org/ailib/intcam/kosovo .

Dinstein, Yoram. The Conduct of Hostilities under the Law of International Armed Conflict . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Henckaerts, Jean-Marie, and Louise Doswald-Beck, eds. Customary International Law . Vol. 1, The Rules . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, part 2.

ICTY. Final Report to the Prosecutor by the Committee Established to Review the NATO Bombing Campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia . 8 June 2000. Available at http://www.un.org/icty/pressreal/nato061300.htm .

Mulinen, Frederic de. Handbook on the Law of War for Armed Forces . Geneva: ICRC, 1989, esp. 13–14.

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