Law of War Precautions: A Cautionary Note

88 Pages Posted: 18 Jul 2018

See all articles by Sean Watts

Sean Watts

Creighton University School of Law

Date Written: June 7, 2018


While the humanitarian benefits of precautions undertaken to protect civilians during attacks are readily apparent, the operational and legal costs of precautions in the attack are less acknowledged. This paper traces the nearly simultaneous growth of modern military information technology and law-of-war precautions. It showcases an array of benefits and costs of advances in military information technology and highlights under appreciated but persistent obstacles to situational awareness and decision making in military operations. It then traces the development by States, and the expansion and refinement by private commentators, of an international legal obligation to take humanitarian precautions in attacks. Finally, it identifies operational costs associated with precautions as free-standing international legal obligations. This paper advises, in light of enforcement competencies and informational realities, that States reexamine precautions and temper public expectations concerning States’ willingness and ability to undertake humanitarian precautions as they consider future development of the international law of war.

Keywords: Law of War, Law of Armed Conflict, International Humanitarian Law, Precautions, Targeting, Public International Law

Suggested Citation

Watts, Sean, Law of War Precautions: A Cautionary Note (June 7, 2018). Available at SSRN: or

Sean Watts (Contact Author)

Creighton University School of Law ( email )

2500 California Plaza
Omaha, NE 68178
United States

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