Sacrificial Violence and Targeting in International Humanitarian Law

11 Pages Posted: 26 Feb 2010

See all articles by Gregor Noll

Gregor Noll

Gothenburg University, School of Economics, Business and Law

Date Written: February 24, 2010


International humanitarian law (IHL) does not prohibit military action resulting in the loss of civilian life at large. As long as its rules on the protection of civilians and their property are followed, the incidental causation of civilian loss is legal. Why is this so? The not-so-naïve answer is that contemporary military operations would be made difficult, if they were to be carried out under legal norms leaving no room for civilian casualties whatsoever. Such severe constraints were as undesirable for states developing ius in bello through history as the total absence of constraints. That apart, incidental and lawful civilian losses within the framework of IHL could be seen as indispensable signs in a symbolic order fettering violent conflicts in communities. With this text, I would like to outline how this possibility might be researched in a future, more comprehensive project. In choosing targeting as an area, I believe that I am close to an archetypical norm on the fettering of violence in the laws of war. The present text features two distinct steps.

First, I explore central norms on targeting in contemporary IHL, as the ultimate point of a historically grown body of thought on the lawful killing of certain civilians. This reading of the law emphasises its central ambiguities, and tries to lay bare the chains of equivalence between military objective and civilian death it constructs. A central concern is the open question of civil-political objective to be pursued through IHL-abiding war. All this will be done in the consecutive Section 2.

Second, to argue that casualties are perceived as necessary preconditions for peace in an international community, I introduce a theory explaining how the causation of incidental death of civilians, rather than the willed death of enemy combatants, plays a pacifying role in the symbolic order of international law. I wish to explore targeting norms as part of a contemporary victimisation ritual, offering the civilian casualty in exchange for divine appeasement of an international community. This approach draws on the work of René Girard explaining how communal violence is contained through ritual acts of sacrificial killings. This projection of Girardian theory on IHL norms will be performed in Section 3. A brief conclusion will be drawn in Section 4.

Keywords: targeting, humanitarian law, Girard,sacrifice, scapegoat

Suggested Citation

Noll, Gregor, Sacrificial Violence and Targeting in International Humanitarian Law (February 24, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

Gregor Noll (Contact Author)

Gothenburg University, School of Economics, Business and Law ( email )


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