The prohibition on indiscriminate attacks is a fundamental principle of international humanitarian law (IHL), which is a set of rules that seeks to protect civilians, combatants who are no longer participating in hostilities, and certain objects during armed conflicts. Indiscriminate attacks are those that cannot be directed at a specific military target or those that employ methods or means of warfare that are incapable of distinguishing between civilians and combatants or between civilian objects and military objectives. Such attacks are prohibited under IHL.
The principle of distinction is at the core of IHL and requires parties to a conflict to distinguish between the civilian population and combatants, as well as between civilian objects and military objectives. This means that attacks must be directed only at legitimate military targets, such as enemy combatants or military installations, while taking all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects.
Indiscriminate attacks violate this principle of distinction by failing to differentiate between military targets and the civilian population or civilian objects. Examples of indiscriminate attacks include targeting densely populated areas without regard for the presence of civilians, using weapons that have a wide area effect but lack precision, or launching attacks without verifying the target’s nature or the expected military advantage.
The prohibition on indiscriminate attacks is enshrined in several international treaties, including the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, as well as customary international law. These legal instruments impose obligations on parties to armed conflicts to respect and ensure respect for the principle of distinction, thus prohibiting indiscriminate attacks.
Violations of the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks can constitute war crimes, subjecting individuals responsible to criminal prosecution by domestic or international courts. States and armed groups are expected to adhere to this principle and take all necessary measures to prevent and punish indiscriminate attacks during armed conflicts.