United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Practice Relating to Rule 1. The Principle of Distinction between Civilians and Combatants
Section C. Attacks against civilians
The UK Military Manual (1958) states: “It is a generally recognised rule of international law that civilians must not be made the object of attack directed exclusively against them.”
The UK LOAC Pamphlet (1981) states: “Civilians are protected from attack under the law of armed conflict.”
The UK LOAC Manual (2004) states: “The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack.”
In its chapter on air operations, the manual further states: “The civilian population and individual civilians must not be attacked and must be protected against the dangers arising from military operations.”
The UK Geneva Conventions Act (1957), as amended in 1977, punishes “any person, whatever his nationality, who, whether in or outside the United Kingdom, commits, or aids, abets or procures the commission by any other person of, a grave breach of … [the 1977 Additional Protocol I]”.
Under the UK ICC Act (2001), it is a punishable offence to commit a war crime as defined in Article 8(2)(b)(i) and (e)(i) of the 1998 ICC Statute.
In 1938, during a debate in the House of Commons, the UK Prime Minister listed among rules of international law applicable to warfare on land, at sea and from the air the rule: “It is against international law to bomb civilians as such and to make deliberate attacks upon civilian populations.”
At the CDDH, the United Kingdom voted in favour of Article 46 of the draft Additional Protocol I (now Article 51), describing its first three paragraphs as containing a “valuable reaffirmation of existing customary rules of international law designed to protect civilians”.
A training video on IHL produced by the UK Ministry of Defence illustrates the rule that military operations must not be directed against civilians.
In its written statement submitted to the ICJ in the Nuclear Weapons case
in 1995, the United Kingdom stated: “It is a well established principle of customary international law that the civilian population and individual civilians are not a legitimate target in their own right.”
In 2006, in reply to questions in the House of Commons concerning, inter alia
, the treatment of the Karen people in Myanmar, the UK Minister of State for Trade, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, stated: “We condemn the attacks carried out by the Burmese army on civilians in northern and western Karen State.”
In 2007, in a written answer to a question in the House of Lords concerning civilian casualties in Afghanistan, the UK Government Spokesman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office wrote:
The UK joins the Agency Co-ordinating Body for Afghan Relief in condemning the actions of armed insurgents causing civilian casualties … International forces, including UK forces, seek at all times to avoid loss of civilian life. The targeting process, weapons selection, doctrine, training and rules of engagement are all in line with international humanitarian and human rights law and the law of armed conflict.
In 2009, in response to a question by a Member of the House of Commons, the UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs wrote: “Rocket attacks by Palestinian militants targeted at innocent civilians in southern Israel constitute a breach of international humanitarian law.”
The UK Government Strategy on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict (2010) states:
Protection of civilians in armed conflict matters from a legal perspective
, because the UK has specific obligations concerning the protection of civilians in situations where it is involved in military action. International humanitarian law (IHL) provides that civilians shall enjoy general protection from the effects of armed conflict [and] protects civilians from being the object of attack. … [C]ivilians must not be the target of physical attacks.
[emphasis in original]