Related Rule
United States of America
Practice Relating to Rule 7. The Principle of Distinction between Civilian Objects and Military Objectives
The US Air Force Pamphlet (1976) provides: “The requirement to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and between military objectives and civilian objects, imposes obligations on all the parties to the conflict to establish and maintain the distinctions.” 
United States, Air Force Pamphlet 110-31, International Law – The Conduct of Armed Conflict and Air Operations, US Department of the Air Force, 1976, § 5-3(b).
The US Naval Handbook (2007) states: “The principle of distinction is concerned with distinguishing … military objects from civilian objects so as to minimize damage to … civilian objects.” 
United States, The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations, NWP 1-14M/MCWP 5-12.1/COMDTPUB P5800.7, issued by the Department of the Navy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and Headquarters, US Marine Corps, and Department of Homeland Security, US Coast Guard, July 2007, § 5.3.2.
In 1991, in response to an ICRC memorandum on the applicability of IHL in the Gulf region, the US Department of the Army pointed out: “The obligation of distinguishing combatants and military objectives from civilians and civilian objects is a shared responsibility of the attacker, defender, and the civilian population as such.” 
United States, Letter from the Department of the Army to the legal adviser of the US armed forces deployed in the Gulf region, 11 January 1991, § 8(E), Report on US Practice, 1997, Chapter 1.4.
In 1992, in its final report to Congress on the conduct of the Gulf War, the US Department of Defense stated that Article 48 of the 1977 Additional Protocol I “is generally regarded as a codification of the customary practice of nations, and therefore binding on all”. 
United States, Department of Defense, Final Report to Congress on the Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, 10 April 1992, Appendix O, The Role of the Law of War, ILM, Vol. 31, 1992, p. 625.
The report also stated: “The law of war with respect to targeting, collateral damage and collateral civilian casualties is derived from the principle of discrimination; that is, the necessity for distinguishing … between legitimate military targets and civilian objects.” 
United States, Department of Defense, Final Report to Congress on the Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, 10 April 1992, Appendix O, The Role of the Law of War, ILM, Vol. 31, 1992, p. 621.
In March 2010, in a speech given at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law, the US Department of State’s Legal Adviser stated:
[T]his Administration has carefully reviewed the rules governing targeting operations to ensure that these operations are conducted consistently with law of war principles, including:
- First, the principle of distinction, which requires that attacks be limited to military objectives and that … civilian objects shall not be the object of the attack;
In U.S. operations against al-Qaeda and its associated forces – including lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles – great care is taken to adhere to these principles in both planning and execution, to ensure that only legitimate objectives are targeted. 
United States, “The Obama Administration and International Law”, speech by the Legal Adviser, US Department of State at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law, Washington DC, 25 March 2010.
[emphasis in original]
The US Air Force Pamphlet (1976) explains:
The requirement that attacks be limited to military objectives results from several requirements of international law. The mass annihilation of enemy people is neither humane, permissible, nor militarily necessary. The Hague Regulations prohibit destruction or seizure of enemy property “unless such destruction or seizure be imperatively demanded by the necessities of war.” Destruction as an end in itself is a violation of international law, and there must be some reasonable connection between the destruction of property and the overcoming of enemy military forces. Various other prohibitions and the Hague Regulations and Hague Convention IX further support the requirement that attacks be directed only at military objectives. 
United States, Air Force Pamphlet 110-31, International Law – The Conduct of Armed Conflict and Air Operations, US Department of the Air Force, 1976, § 5–3(b)(2); see also Field Manual 27-10, The Law of Land Warfare, US Department of the Army, 18 July 1956, as modified by Change No. 1, 15 July 1976, § 56.
The US Rules of Engagement for Operation Desert Storm (1991) provides: “Attack only military targets.” 
United States, Desert Storm – Rules of Engagement, Pocket Card, US Central Command, January 1991, reprinted in Operational Law Handbook, International and Operational Law Department, The Judge Advocate General’s School, United States Army, Charlottesville, Virginia, 1995, pp. 8-7 and 8-8, § 2.
The US Naval Handbook (1995) provides: “Only military objectives may be attacked.” 
United States, The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations, NWP 1-14M/MCWP 5-2.1/COMDTPUB P5800.7, issued by the Department of the Navy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and Headquarters, US Marine Corps, and Department of Transportation, US Coast Guard, October 1995 (formerly NWP 9 (Rev. A)/FMFM 1-10, October 1989), § 8.1.1.
The US Naval Handbook (2007) states: “Only military objectives may be attacked.” 
United States, The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations, NWP 1-14M/MCWP 5-12.1/COMDTPUB P5800.7, issued by the Department of the Navy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and Headquarters, US Marine Corps, and Department of Homeland Security, US Coast Guard, July 2007, § 8.2.
The Handbook also states:
An object that meets the definition of a military objective may be attacked even if the object, such as an electric power plant, also serves civilian functions, subject to the requirement to avoid excessive incidental injury and collateral damage. 
United States, The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations, NWP 1-14M/MCWP 5-12.1/COMDTPUB P5800.7, issued by the Department of the Navy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and Headquarters, US Marine Corps, and Department of Homeland Security, US Coast Guard, July 2007, § 8.3.
In 1950, the US Secretary of State stated: “The air activity of the United Nations forces in Korea has been, and is, directed solely at military targets of the invader.” 
United States, Statement by the Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, 6 September 1950, reprinted in Marjorie Whiteman, Digest of International Law, Vol. 10, Department of State Publication 8367, Washington, D.C., 1968, p. 140.
At a news briefing in December 1966, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs stated, with reference to inquiries concerning reported incidents resulting from bombing in the vicinity of Hanoi on 13 and 14 December 1966: “The only targets struck by U.S. aircraft were military ones, well outside the city proper.” 
United States, News briefing by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, Robert McCloskey, 22 December 1966, reprinted in Marjorie Whiteman, Digest of International Law, Vol. 10, Department of State Publication 8367, Washington, D.C., 1968, p. 426.
In December 1966, in reply to an inquiry from a member of the US House of Representatives asking for a restatement of US policy on targeting in North Vietnam, a US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense wrote: “United States policy is to target military targets only. There has been no deviation from this policy.” 
United States, Letter from Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Goulding to US Representative Ogden Reid from New York, 30 December 1966, reprinted in Marjorie Whiteman, Digest of International Law, Vol. 10, Department of State Publication 8367, Washington, D.C., 1968, p. 428.
At the CDDH, the United States stated that the first sentence of Article 47(2) of the draft Additional Protocol I (now Article 52(2)) “prohibits only such attacks as may be directed against non-military objectives. It does not deal with the question of collateral damage caused by attacks directed against military objectives.” 
United States, Statement at the CDDH, Official Records, Vol. VI, CDDH/SR.41, 26 May 1977, p. 204.
In 1991, in a report submitted to the UN Security Council on operations in the Gulf War, the United States stated: “The military actions initiated by the United States and other States co-operating with the Government of Kuwait … are directed strictly at military and strategic targets.” 
United States, Letter dated 17 January 1991 to the President of the UN Security Council, UN Doc. S/22090, 17 January 1991, p. 2.
In 1991, in a diplomatic note to Iraq concerning operations in the Gulf War, the United States asserted: “The United States and other coalition forces are only attacking targets of military value in Iraq.” 
United States, Department of State, Diplomatic Note to Iraq, Washington, 21 January 1991, annexed to Letter dated 22 January 1991 to the President of the UN Security Council, UN Doc. S/22130, 22 January 1991.
In 1992, in its final report to Congress on the conduct of the Gulf War, the US Department of Defense stated that Article 48 of the 1977 Additional Protocol I “is generally regarded as a codification of the customary practice of nations, and therefore binding on all”. 
United States, Department of Defense, Final Report to Congress on the Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, 10 April 1992, Appendix O, The Role of the Law of War, ILM, Vol. 31, 1992, p. 625.
The report further stated: “CINCCENT [Commander-in-Chief, Central Command] conducted a theater campaign directed solely at military targets.” 
United States, Department of Defense, Final Report to Congress on the Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, 10 April 1992, Appendix O, The Role of the Law of War, ILM, Vol. 31, 1992, p. 644.
The US Air Force Pamphlet (1976) provides: “Civilian objects shall not be made the object of attack.” 
United States, Air Force Pamphlet 110-31, International Law – The Conduct of Armed Conflict and Air Operations, US Department of the Air Force, 1976, § 5-3(a)(1)(b).
The Pamphlet also states:
In addition to the grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the following acts are representative of situations involving individual criminal responsibility: … (4) aerial bombardment for the deliberate purpose of … destroying protected areas, buildings or objects. 
United States, Air Force Pamphlet 110-31, International Law – The Conduct of Armed Conflict and Air Operations, US Department of the Air Force, 1976, § 15-3(c)(4).
The US Rules of Engagement for Operation Desert Storm (1991) states:
Avoid harming civilian property unless necessary to save US lives. Do not attack traditional civilian objects, such as houses, unless they are being used by the enemy for military purposes and neutralization assists in mission accomplishment. 
United States, Desert Storm – Rules of Engagement, Pocket Card, US Central Command, January 1991, reprinted in Operational Law Handbook, International and Operational Law Department, The Judge Advocate General’s School, United States Army, Charlottesville, Virginia, 1995, pp. 8-7 and 8-8, § G.
The US Naval Handbook (1995) provides: “Civilians and civilian objects may not be made the object of attack.” 
United States, The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations, NWP 1-14M/MCWP 5-2.1/COMDTPUB P5800.7, issued by the Department of the Navy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and Headquarters, US Marine Corps, and Department of Transportation, US Coast Guard, October 1995 (formerly NWP 9 (Rev. A)/FMFM 1-10, October 1989), § 8.1.2.
The US Manual for Military Commissions (2007), Part IV, Crimes and Elements, includes in the list of crimes triable by military commissions:
ATTACKING CIVILIAN OBJECTS.
a. Text. “Any person subject to this chapter who intentionally engages in an attack upon a civilian object that is not a military objective shall be punished as a military commission under this chapter may direct.”
b. Elements.
(1) The accused engaged in an attack;
(2) The object of the attack was civilian property, that is, property that was not a military objective;
(3) The accused intended such civilian property to be an object of the attack;
(4) The accused knew or should have known that such property was not a military objective; and
(5) The attack took place in the context of and was associated with armed conflict.
c. Comment. The intent required for this offense precludes its applicability with regard to collateral damage or death, damage, or injury incident to a lawful attack.
d. Maximum punishment. Confinement for 20 years. 
United States, Manual for Military Commissions, published in implementation of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, 10 U.S.C. §§ 948a, et seq., 18 January 2007, Part IV, § 6(3), p. IV-4.
The US Naval Handbook (2007) states: “Civilians and civilian objects may not be made the object of deliberate or indiscriminate attack.” 
United States, The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations, NWP 1-14M/MCWP 5-12.1/COMDTPUB P5800.7, issued by the Department of the Navy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and Headquarters, US Marine Corps, and Department of Homeland Security, US Coast Guard, July 2007, § 8.3.
The Handbook also states: “Commanders … must distinguish valid military objectives from … civilian objects before attacking.” 
United States, The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations, NWP 1-14M/MCWP 5-12.1/COMDTPUB P5800.7, issued by the Department of the Navy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and Headquarters, US Marine Corps, and Department of Homeland Security, US Coast Guard, July 2007, § 5.3.2.
The US Manual for Military Commissions (2010), Part IV, Crimes and Elements, includes in the list of crimes triable by military commissions:
ATTACKING CIVILIAN OBJECTS.
a. Text. “Any person subject to this chapter who intentionally engages in an attack upon a civilian object that is not a military objective shall be punished as a military commission under this chapter may direct.”
b. Elements.
(1) The accused engaged in an attack;
(2) The object of the attack was civilian property, that is, property that was not a military objective;
(3) The accused intended such civilian property to be an object of the attack;
(4) The accused knew or should have known that such property was not a military objective; and
(5) The attack took place in the context of and was associated with hostilities.
c. Comment. The intent required for this offense precludes its applicability with regard to collateral damage or death, damage, or injury incident to a lawful attack.
d. Maximum punishment. Confinement for 20 years. 
United States, Manual for Military Commissions, published in implementation of Chapter 47A of Title 10, United States Code, as amended by the Military Commissions Act of 2009, 10 U.S.C, §§ 948a, et seq., 27 April 2010, § 5(3), p. IV-4.
The US Military Commissions Act (2006), passed by Congress following the Supreme Court’s decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld in 2006, amends Title 10 of the United States Code as follows:
§ 950v. Crimes triable by military commissions
(b) OFFENSES. – The following offenses shall be triable by military commission under this chapter at any time without limitation:
(3) ATTACKING CIVILIAN OBJECTS. – Any person subject to this chapter who intentionally engages in an attack upon a civilian object that is not a military objective shall be punished as a military commission under this chapter may direct. 
United States, Military Commissions Act, 2006, Public Law 109-366, Chapter 47A of Title 10 of the United States Code, 17 October 2006, p. 120 Stat. 2626, § 950v(b)(3).
The US Military Commissions Act (2009) amends Chapter 47A of Title 10 of the United States Code as follows:
§ 950t. Crimes triable by military commission
“The following offenses shall be triable by military commission under this chapter at any time without limitation:
“ …
“(3) ATTACKING CIVILIAN OBJECTS.—Any person subject to this chapter who intentionally engages in an attack upon a civilian object that is not a military objective shall be punished as a military commission under this chapter may direct. 
United States, Military Commissions Act, 2009, § 950t(3).
In 1966, in reply to an inquiry from a member of the US House of Representatives asking for a restatement of US policy on targeting in North Vietnam, a US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense wrote: “No United States aircraft have been ordered to strike any civilian targets in North Vietnam at any time … We have no knowledge that any pilot has disobeyed his orders and deliberately attacked these or any other nonmilitary targets in North Vietnam.” 
United States, Letter from Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Goulding to US Representative Ogden Reid from New York, 30 December 1966, reprinted in Marjorie Whiteman, Digest of International Law, Vol. 10, Department of State Publication 8367, Washington, D.C., 1968, p. 428.
In 1974, at the Lucerne Conference of Government Experts on Weapons which may Cause Unnecessary Suffering or have Indiscriminate Effects, the head of the US delegation stated that “the law of war also prohibits attacks on civilians and civilian objects as such”. 
United States, Statement of 25 September 1974 at the Conference of Government Experts on Weapons which may Cause Unnecessary Suffering or have Indiscriminate Effects, Lucerne, 24 September–18 October 1974, reprinted in Arthur W. Rovine, Digest of United States Practice in International Law, 1974, Department of State Publication 8809, Washington, D.C., 1975, p. 713.
In 1991, in a report submitted to the UN Security Council on operations in the Gulf War, the United States stated: “Over 52,000 coalition air sorties have been carried out since hostilities began on 16 January. These sorties were not flown against any civilian or religious targets.” 
United States, Letter dated 8 February 1991 to the President of the UN Security Council, UN Doc. S/22216, 13 February 1991, p. 1
In a declaration on Yugoslavia adopted in 1991, the European Community and its member States, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the United States stated that they were “particularly disturbed by reports of continued attacks on civilian targets by elements of the federal armed forces and by both Serbian and Croat irregular forces”. 
European Community, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and United States of America, Declaration on Yugoslavia, The Hague, 18 October 1991, annexed to Letter dated 21 October 1991 from the Netherlands, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the United States to the UN Secretary-General, UN Doc. A/C.1/46/11, 24 October 1991.
In 1993, in its report to Congress on the protection of natural and cultural resources during times of war, the US Department of Defense stated:
The United States considers the obligations to protect natural, civilian, and cultural property to be customary international law … Cultural property, civilian objects, and natural resources are protected from intentional attack so long as they are not utilized for military purposes. 
United States, Department of Defense, Report to Congress on International Policies and Procedures Regarding the Protection of Natural and Cultural Resources During Times of War, 19 January 1993, p. 202.
The US Rules of Engagement for Operation Desert Storm (1991) gives the following instruction:
Do not fire into civilian populated areas or buildings which are not defended or being used for military purposes. [S]chools … will not be engaged except in self-defense. Do not attack traditional civilian objects, such as houses, unless they are being used by the enemy for military purposes and neutralization assists in mission accomplishment. 
United States, Desert Storm – Rules of Engagement, Pocket Card, US Central Command, January 1991, reprinted in Operational Law Handbook, International and Operational Law Department, The Judge Advocate General’s School, United States Army, Charlottesville, Virginia, 1995, pp. 8-7 and 8-8, §§ B, C and G.
The US Naval Handbook (1995) states: “The wanton or deliberate destruction of areas of concentrated civilian habitation, including cities, towns, and villages, is prohibited.” 
United States, The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations, NWP 1-14M/MCWP 5-2.1/COMDTPUB P5800.7, issued by the Department of the Navy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and Headquarters, US Marine Corps, and Department of Transportation, US Coast Guard, October 1995 (formerly NWP 9 (Rev. A)/FMFM 1-10, October 1989), § 8.5.1.1.
The US Naval Handbook (2007) states that examples of war crimes that could be considered as grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions include: “Wanton destruction of cities, towns, and villages or devastation not justified by the requirements of military operations.” 
United States, The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations, NWP 1-14M/MCWP 5-12.1/COMDTPUB P5800.7, issued by the Department of the Navy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and Headquarters, US Marine Corps, and Department of Homeland Security, US Coast Guard, July 2007, § 6.2.6(6).
In 1991, in a report submitted to the UN Security Council on operations in the Gulf War, the United States denounced Iraq’s firing of surface-to-surface missiles at Saudi Arabia and Israel and stated: “Particularly in regard to Israel, Iraq has targeted these missiles against civilian areas in an obvious sign of Iraqi disregard for civilian casualties.” 
United States, Letter dated 30 January 1991 to the President of the UN Security Council, UN Doc. S/22173, 30 January 1991, p. 2; see also Letter dated 22 January 1991 to the President of the UN Security Council, UN Doc. S/22130, 22 January 1991, pp. 1–2; and Letter dated 8 February 1991 to the President of the UN Security Council, UN Doc. S/22216, 13 February 1991, p. 2.
With respect to civil aircraft, the US Air Force Pamphlet (1976) states:
If identified as a civil aircraft, air transport in flight should not be the object of attack, unless at the time it represents a valid military objective such as when there is an immediate military threat or use. An unauthorized entry into a flight restriction zone might in some conflicts be deemed an immediate military threat. Wherever encountered, enemy civil aircraft are subject to instruction in order to verify status and preclude their involvement … Civil aircraft on the ground, as objects of attack, are governed by the rules of what constitutes a legitimate military objective as well as the rules and principles relative to aerial bombardment. As sources of airlift they may, under the circumstances ruling at the time, qualify as important military objectives. Civil aircraft entitled to protection include nonmilitary state aircraft and a state owned airline. The principle of law and humanity protecting civilians and civilian objects from being objects of attack as such, protects civil aircraft in flight, because civil aircraft are presumed to transport civilians. Such an aircraft is not subject to attack in the absence of a determination that it constitutes a valid military objective. 
United States, Air Force Pamphlet 110-31, International Law – The Conduct of Armed Conflict and Air Operations, US Department of the Air Force, 1976, § 4-3.
The US Air Force Commander’s Handbook (1980) states: “Civilian vehicles, aircraft, vessels … may be the object of attack if they have combatant personnel in them and if collateral damage would not be excessive under the circumstances.” 
United States, Air Force Pamphlet 110-34, Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Armed Conflict, Judge Advocate General, US Department of the Air Force, 25 July 1980, § 2-2.
The US Naval Handbook (1995) provides:
Civil passenger vessels at sea and civil airliners in flight are subject to capture but are exempt from destruction. Although enemy lines of communication are generally legitimate military targets in modern warfare, civilian passenger vessels at sea, and civil airliners in flight, are exempt from destruction, unless at the time of the encounter they are being utilized by the enemy for a military purpose (e.g., transporting troops or military cargo) or refuse to respond to the directions of the intercepting warship or military aircraft. Such passenger vessels in port and airliners on the ground are not protected from destruction. 
United States, The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations, NWP 1-14M/MCWP 5-2.1/COMDTPUB P5800.7, issued by the Department of the Navy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and Headquarters, US Marine Corps, and Department of Transportation, US Coast Guard, October 1995 (formerly NWP 9 (Rev. A)/FMFM 1-10, October 1989), § 8.2.3(6).
The US Naval Handbook (2007) states:
Civilian passenger vessels at sea and civil airliners in flight are subject to capture but are exempt from destruction. Although enemy lines of communication are generally legitimate military targets in modern warfare, civilian passenger vessels at sea, and civil airliners in flight, are exempt from destruction, unless at the time of the encounter they are being utilized by the enemy for a military purpose (e.g., transporting troops or military cargo) or refuse to respond to the directions of the intercepting warship or military aircraft. Such passenger vessels in port and airliners on the ground are not protected from destruction. 
United States, The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations, NWP 1-14M/MCWP 5-12.1/COMDTPUB P5800.7, issued by the Department of the Navy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and Headquarters, US Marine Corps, and Department of Homeland Security, US Coast Guard, July 2007, § 8.6.3.
Following investigations by the Secretary-General of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) into the shooting down of two civil aircraft by the Cuban air force on 24 February 1996, a debate took place on 26 July 1996 in the UN Security Council, during which the United States stated: “Cuba violated the principle of customary law that States must refrain from resorting to the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight – a principle that applies whether the aircraft are in national or international airspace”. According to the United States, an attack against a civilian aircraft in flight violates elementary considerations of humanity. 
United States, Statement before the UN Security Council, UN Doc. S/PV.3683, 26 July 1996, p. 3.