United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Practice Relating to Rule 7. The Principle of Distinction between Civilian Objects and Military Objectives
Section A. The principle of distinction
The UK LOAC Manual (2004) states: “Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between civilians or other protected persons and combatants and between civilian or exempt objects and military objectives.”
With regard to internal armed conflict, the manual states:
15.9. Attacks are to be directed only against objects or areas which, at the time the attack is launched, are of tactical or strategic military importance.
15.9.1. There is no definition of military objectives or attacks in the treaty law dealing with non-international armed conflicts. Nevertheless, the definitions used in respect of international armed conflicts should be treated as applicable.
The UK LOAC Manual (2004), as amended in 2010, states:
Since military operations are to be conducted only against the enemy’s armed forces and military objectives, there must be a clear distinction … between objects that might legitimately be attacked and those that are protected from attack. The principle of distinction … separates legitimate targets, namely military objectives, from civilian objects.
15.9. Attacks are to be directed only against objects or areas which, at the time the attack is launched, are of tactical or strategic military importance so as to amount to military objectives.
In reply to a question in the House of Lords concerning the Gulf War, the UK Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State of the Ministry of Defence stated:
The Geneva Conventions contain no provisions expressly regulating targeting in armed conflict. The Hague Regulations of 1907 and customary international law do, however, incorporate the twin principles of distinction between military and civilian objects, and of proportionality so far as the risk of collateral civilian damage from an attack on a military objective is concerned. These principles and associated rules of international law were observed at all times by coalition forces in the planning and execution of attacks against Iraq.
In its written statement submitted to the ICJ in the Nuclear Weapons case
in 1995, the United Kingdom stated: “The parties to an armed conflict are required to discriminate between civilians and civilian objects on the one hand and combatants and military objectives on the other and to direct their attacks only against the latter.”
While the core challenges in the protection of civilians identified in the previous reports of the Secretary-General still need our sustained attention, the new report also identifies several protection policy priorities that need to be explored. In particular the following “emerging” issues would benefit from our attention, and the Group of Friends stands ready to act as a platform to advance them. …
… [O]n the issue of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS), the Group is of the view that further discussions are needed and it welcomes the fact that the issue will be examined in Geneva in May 2014, in the framework of the CCW [Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons]. The Group hopes that such discussions will also examine the issue with due consideration to the protection of civilians as part of a comprehensive debate including legal, military operational, technological and ethical perspectives. In time discussion should focus on the relevance of such systems to the protection of civilians, in particular in the context of IHL and with regard to the principles of distinction, precaution and proportionality.