Practice Relating to Rule 7. The Principle of Distinction between Civilian Objects and Military Objectives
Section A. The principle of distinction
Switzerland’s Basic Military Manual (1987) provides: “To guarantee the protection of the civilian population and the maintenance of civilian objects, the parties to the conflict shall always distinguish between … civilian objects and military objectives.”
Switzerland’s Regulation on Legal Bases for Conduct during an Engagement (2005) states:
12 The four basic principles of the international law of armed conflict
- the principle of distinction;
12.1 The principle of distinction
159 Hostilities must be directed exclusively against combatants and military objectives. Respect for this rule is only possible if combatants and military objectives can be distinguished from protected persons and objects.
In 2009, in its Strategy on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict 2009–2012, Switzerland’s Federal Department of Foreign Affairs stated: “The fundamental principle of distinction between civilians and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives is often challenged[,] with severe impact for the civilian populations.”
Switzerland’s ABC of International Humanitarian Law (2009) states:
International humanitarian law distinguishes between Civilian objects and Military objectives, prohibiting acts of violence against the former. … Civilian objects are all objects which are not military objectives.
International humanitarian law protects the civilian population and prohibits attacks against Civilians and Civilian objects. One of its ground rules is the principle of distinction: the parties to a conflict are obliged to conduct military operations exclusively against Military objectives and must therefore always distinguish between Civilians and Combatants as well as between Civilian objects and Military objectives. …
International humanitarian law distinguishes between Civilian objects
and military objectives. … Under international humanitarian law military personnel must at all times give full consideration to the nature of a potential target and opt exclusively for those that qualify as genuine military objectives.
In 2012, Switzerland’s Federal Department of Foreign Affairs issued a press release entitled “Appeal by the Swiss authorities for compliance with international humanitarian law in Syria”, which stated:
International humanitarian law is applicable to non-international armed conflict.
4. International humanitarian law is applicable in non-international armed conflicts. All parties to the conflict are therefore obliged to respect its rules in all circumstances, including the rules protecting persons who are [not] or are no [longer] participating in the hostilities, as well as the rules relative to the means and methods of warfare.
Appeal to respect international rules
7. [Switzerland] recalls that in the conduct of military operations, all feasible precautions must be taken with a view to avoid incidental loss of civilian life[,] injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects and collateral damage to civilian property. All parties are subject to the obligation to respect the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution.
In 2013, in answer to an interpellation in Parliament regarding the use of drones, Switzerland’s Federal Council stated:
In armed conflicts, strikes carried out with armed drones must respect the rules of the conduct of hostilities as stipulated by international humanitarian law, including the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution, and must therefore not be directed against civilians or civilian objects. For each strike, it is thus necessary to verify that these principles were respected.
In 2013, in a statement at the Meeting of the High Contracting Parties to the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, the permanent representative of Switzerland stated:
The community of States cannot remain indifferent to the human suffering caused by armed conflicts. It was in direct response to this fundamental concern that the CCW [1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons] and its protocols were adopted, with a view to prohibiting or limiting the use of certain specific types of weapons known to inflict superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering, or to strike indiscriminately.
In this regard, Switzerland is deeply concerned by the alleged use of weapons in Syria falling within the ambit of the CCW and its respective protocols, such as the alleged use of anti-personnel mines as well as the alleged use of incendiary weapons in populated areas causing severe human suffering. We call upon all parties to the conflict to comply with their obligations under international law, in particular the principles of distinction, precaution, and proportionality.