Taking Distinction to the Next Level: Accountability for Fighters’ Failure to Distinguish Themselves from Civilians
39 Pages Posted: 29 Sep 2011 Last revised: 6 Jun 2012
Date Written: September 27, 2011
The nature of recent conflicts and the “civilianization” of the battlefield has led many to question the effectiveness of distinction going forward, in essence challenging the very foundations of the law of armed conflict. But is distinction truly on the defensive, or do we simply need to rethink how we approach this most fundamental protective principle? The nature of contemporary conflicts demands that we take distinction to the next level and hold non-state actors and others accountable for the failure to distinguish themselves from innocent civilians. Trumpeting the obligation to distinguish between combatants and civilians and then bemoaning the blurred and complex nature of the zone of combat, in which fighters purposely blend into the civilian population and fight from within the civilian infrastructure, simply falls short of the mark. The next step therefore is to reinforce this distinction not only in the conduct of hostilities but also in the post-conflict accountability phase. International criminal tribunals have issued numerous convictions and sentences for deliberate targeting of civilians, indiscriminate attacks on civilians and disproportionate attacks on civilians – all violations of the principle of distinction. Accountability for violations in this second part of distinction, however, lags far behind. This article will explore how the failure to hold persons accountable for perfidy and other violations of the obligation to distinguish will continue to undermine the ability of the law to provide maximum protection to innocent civilians during armed conflict. These violations pose an equal danger to civilians when soldiers cannot tell who is an innocent civilian and who is a fighter simply disguised in civilian clothes. When militants benefit both tactically and strategically from the use of the civilian population as a shield and as a disguise, the international community must take distinction to the next level and demand accountability for such violations as a critical step in the protection of civilians during armed conflict.
Keywords: distinction, law of armed conflict, international humanitarian law, human shields, perfidy, international criminal law, Geneva Conventions, Additional Protocol I
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