By Sahr Muhammedally

May 11, 2021 – Protecting civilians in urban operations is complex. Separating military targets from civilian populations is hard in any environment, but in urban areas, the density of the population, civilian objects – such as homes and schools, hospitals, electric power grids, and water sources – magnifies the challenges. Urban environments make detection and identification difficult, as surface and subterranean areas can cover and conceal military objectives and can be used to launch attacks from and reduce effectiveness of present-day military technologies. Preparedness and planning on intelligence, maneuver, use of force, training, and humanitarian assistance is essential to foresee risk of civilian harm from the effects of attack by those attacking a city and those defending it.

International humanitarian law (IHL) requires that parties to armed conflict take a range of precautionary measures in attack and against the effects of attack to protect civilians and civilian objects. Some of these precautionary requirements are a necessary corollary to ensure compliance with the principles of distinction and proportionality, though IHL also requires to avoid or at least minimize incidental civilian harm even in situations where distinction and proportionality are respected. More generally, parties must take constant care to spare the civilian population, civilians and civilian objects from harm in the conduct of military operations, and not just attacks. Rules on distinction require that parties to a conflict distinguish between civilian persons and objects on the one hand, and combatants and military objectives on the other. 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.

Read the full article, which is part of ICRC’s special series on urban warfare.