United States of America
Practice Relating to Rule 7. The Principle of Distinction between Civilian Objects and Military Objectives
Section A. The principle of distinction
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.”
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.”
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.”
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”.
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.”
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.
[emphasis in original]
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.