Associate Fellow, International Law Programme, Chatham House
10 December 2018
Military operations are taking place with increasing frequency in densely populated areas. Such operations result in loss of life and harm to civilians, as well as damage to civilian objects, (including infrastructure providing essential services). In order to protect civilians, it is imperative that armed forces and groups comply with the rules of international humanitarian law on the conduct of hostilities, including the rule of proportionality.
The rule of proportionality prohibits attacks which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. This research paper analyses the key steps that belligerents must take to give effect to the rule, with a particular focus on one side of proportionality assessments – the expected incidental harm.
Those undertaking proportionality assessments before or during an attack must consider whether the expected harm will be caused by the attack, and whether that harm could be expected (that is, was it reasonably foreseeable).
For the purpose of proportionality assessments, injury to civilians includes disease, and there is no reason in principle to exclude mental harm, even though it is currently challenging to identify and quantify it. Damage to civilian objects includes damage to elements of the natural environment.
Once the incidental harm to be considered has been identified, a value or weight must be assigned to it. This is then balanced against the value or weight of the military advantage anticipated from the attack to determine whether the harm would be excessive.
In the determination of whether the expected incidental harm would be excessive compared to the anticipated military advantage, ‘excessive’ is a wide but not indeterminate standard.
Belligerents should develop methodologies so that those planning and deciding attacks are provided with all necessary information on expected incidental harm, and to assist them in assigning weight to the incidental harm to be considered.
If it becomes apparent that the rule of proportionality will be contravened, the attack in question must be cancelled or suspended.
Clarification of the law is important in ensuring compliance with the rule of proportionality, but a culture of compliance within armed forces and groups, inculcated by their leaders, is also crucial.