The principle of distinction is a fundamental concept in international humanitarian law (IHL), also known as the laws of war or the laws of armed conflict. It is designed to protect civilians and minimize the impact on non-combatants during armed conflicts. The principle of distinction requires parties to a conflict to distinguish between military objectives and civilian persons or objects, and to direct their attacks only against legitimate military targets.
According to the principle of distinction, parties to a conflict must make every effort to ensure that their attacks are directed solely at military objectives, which are defined as objects that by their nature, location, purpose, or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose destruction, capture, or neutralization offers a definite military advantage. Indiscriminate attacks, which are those that are not directed at a specific military objective or that employ methods or means of combat that cannot be effectively targeted, are strictly prohibited.
The principle of distinction also requires parties to take all feasible precautions in the planning and conduct of military operations to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects. This includes the obligation to cancel or suspend an attack if it becomes apparent that the target is not a military objective or if the attack is likely to cause excessive civilian harm compared to the anticipated military advantage. Additionally, parties are required to avoid locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas to reduce the risk to civilians.
Violations of the principle of distinction, such as deliberately targeting civilians or indiscriminate attacks, can constitute war crimes and are subject to international condemnation and potential prosecution. The principle is codified in various international legal instruments, including the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, which provide legal protections for victims of armed conflicts and outline the obligations of states and parties to armed conflicts.
It’s important to note that the principle of distinction applies to both state and non-state actors involved in armed conflicts, and it seeks to strike a balance between military necessity and the protection of civilian lives and infrastructure.