Civilians increasingly targets

“Civilians suffer horribly from mounting threats to their security, such as increasing numbers of roadside bombs and suicide attacks, and regular aerial bombing raids.”

So begins yesterdays press release on the war in Afghanistan from the International Committee of the Red Cross. But the phenomenon of civilians as targets is not limited to Afghanistan. From Sri Lanka to Iraq, post-modern wars between governments and militant groups increasingly result in civilians bearing the brunt of the violence. Militants consider civilians to be an acceptable target, in order to wreak maximum havoc on the state with which they are fighting. The state often responds with violence against civilians in militant-controlled or -sympathetic areas in order to punish them– and some governments erroneously believe that such attacks weaken civilian support for the militants. Attacks on civilians are against the Geneva Conventions. As summarized by the ICRC:

“The parties to a conflict must at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants in order to spare the civilian population and civilian property. Neither the civilian population as a whole nor individual civilians may be attacked.”

Nearly all states in the world (194 of them) have signed the Geneva Conventions, including not only the U.S. and U.K., but Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and even Sudan and Somalia. No militant group has signed the treaty, of course, and though some claim to follow it, they are not bound by its restrictions. A state faced with such tactics is tempted to respond in kind. In Sri Lanka, the civil war has killed well over 60,000 people. Two thirds of them have been civilians.

War has always been an option open to governments. But no longer does such a choice mean two armies fielded against each other, with casualties largely limited to combatants. In post-modern war, rules have gone out the window. The enemy may be hidden, goals may be unclear, propaganda may obscure the real issues, weapons may be improvised. And casualties these days are more likely to be non-combatants than soldiers.

(Cross-posted at

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