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Lost in Translation: Contestation and Civilian Deaths during Armed Conflict

Open Panel

Abstract

Why do belligerents intentionally kill civilians during armed conflict? The violation of this pillar of international humanitarian law (IHL), the body of law tasked with regulating armed conflict, has been the subject of significant research and policy deliberation. Many of the useful analyses produced by these efforts operate from common assumptions. One is that a common understanding of the distinction principle, the obligation for belligerents to distinguish between permissible and impermissible targets and a core component of the civilian immunity norm, exists among the IHL enforcement community. Another assumption is that belligerents possess the same understanding of who is protected during armed conflict as the IHL enforcement community. Consequently, many argue that civilians are killed for utilitarian reasons rather than contestation over who the law protects. Through the analysis of narratives collected from IHL experts and belligerents on the African continent, this study reveals that neither assumption is warranted. It finds that not only is there a lack of consensus among belligerents as to whom they can permissibly target during armed conflict, but that there is still debate among IHL experts as to whom the law protects. Furthermore, this study finds that shared understandings of protection during armed conflict do not exist between experts and belligerents, so that belligerents claiming to abide by their particular interpretation of the distinction principle ostensibly target civilians deemed protected by IHL experts. It also finds that such belligerent actions are occasionally governed by a logic of appropriateness rather than a logic of consequences.