Applicable Law International humanitarian law prohibits the intentional targeting of civilians792 and indiscriminate attacks, in both international and non-international armed conflicts.793 Parties to a conflict have an obligation to distinguish at all times between the civilian population and fighters and others taking part in hostilities and to direct attacks only against military objectives.794 Referred to as the “principle of distinction”, the International Court of Justice in its Advisory Opinion of 8 July 1996 on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, recognised this principle as “intransgressible” in customary international law.
Deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian objects are prohibited under intenational criminal law.795 Attacks on places where both civilian and combatants may be found are prohibited if they are not directed at a specific military objective, or if they use methods or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective.796 It is prohibited to launch an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, and/or damage to civilian objects which would be excessive in relation to the anticipated concrete and direct military advantage.797
Customary international humanitarian law establishes that all “parties to the conflict must take all feasible precautions to protect the civilian population and civilian objects under their control against the effects of attacks.”798 Each party to the conflict must, to the extent feasible, avoid locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas.799 Each party to the conflict must, to the extent feasible, remove civilian persons and objects under its control from the vicinity of military objectives.800
Attacking, destroying, removing or otherwise rendering useless objects which are indispensable to the survival of the civilian population is prohibited.801 Sieges must still allow for vital foodstuffs and other essential supplies to be delivered to the civilian population.802
Medical personnel as well as hospitals, medical units and transport must be respected and protected in all circumstances.803Medical personnel, units and transport lose their protection if they are being used, outside their humanitarian function, to commit acts harmful to the enemy.804
International humanitarian law also incorporates specific protections for persons or objects. It is prohibited to commit an act of hostility directed against places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples.805
The Rome Statute sets out a number of war crimes which correspond to breaches of international humanitarian law guarantees. These include the crime of intentionally attacking civilians,806 and intentionally attacking civilian buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected.807 Particular types of attacks against civilians (including medical personnel) may also amount to a crime against humanity if committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack (see chap. I, sect. E).