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Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC)

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Proportionality. Proportionality prohibits the use of any kind or degree of force that exceeds that needed to accomplish the military objective. Proportionality compares the military advantage gained to the harm inflicted while gaining this advantage. Proportionality requires a balancing test between the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated by attacking a legitimate military target and the expected incidental civilian injury or damage. Under this balancing test, excessive incidental losses are prohibited. Proportionality seeks to prevent an attack in situations where civilian casualties would clearly outweigh military gains. This principle encourages combat forces to minimize collateral damage—the incidental, unintended destruction that occurs as a result of a lawful attack against a legitimate military target.

The Geneva Conventions of 1949

Some of the most important LOAC rules come from the Geneva Conventions of 1949. The Geneva Conventions consist of four separate international treaties. These treaties aim to protect combatants and noncombatants from unnecessary suffering who may become wounded, sick, shipwrecked, or POWs during hostilities. They also seek to protect civilians and private property. The four treaties govern the treatment of wounded and sick forces, POWs, and civilians during war or armed conflict.


The Geneva Conventions distinguish between lawful combatants, noncombatants, and unlawful combatants.

Lawful Combatants. A lawful combatant is an individual authorized by governmental authority or the LOAC to engage in hostilities. A lawful combatant may be a member of a regular armed force or an irregular force. In either case, the lawful combatant must be commanded by a person responsible for subordinates; have fixed distinctive emblems recognizable at a distance, such as uniforms; carry arms openly; and conduct his or her combat operations according to the LOAC. The LOAC applies to lawful combatants who engage in the hostilities of armed conflict and provides combatant immunity for their lawful warlike acts during conflict, except for LOAC violations.

Noncombatants. These individuals are not authorized by overnmental authority or the LOAC to engage in hostilities. In fact, they do not engage in hostilities. This category includes civilians accompanying the Armed Forces; combatants who are out of combat, such as POWs and the wounded, and certain military personnel who are members of the Armed Forces not authorized to engage in combatant activities, such as medical personnel and chaplains. Noncombatants may not be made the object of direct attack. They may, however, suffer injury or death incident to a direct attack on a military objective without such an attack violating the LOAC, if such attack is on a lawful target by lawful means.

Unlawful Combatants. Unlawful combatants are individuals who directly participate in hostilities without being authorized by governmental authority or under international law to do so. For example, bandits who rob and plunder and civilians who attack a downed airman are unlawful combatants. Unlawful combatants who engage in hostilities violate LOAC and become lawful targets. They may be killed or wounded and, if captured, may be tried as war criminals for their LOAC violations.

Undetermined Status. Should doubt exist as to whether an individual is a lawful combatant, noncombatant, or an unlawful combatant, such person shall be extended the protections of the Geneva Prisoner of War Convention until status is determined. The capturing nation must convene a competent tribunal to determine the detained person’s status.

Military Targets

The LOAC governs the conduct of aerial warfare. The principle of military necessity limits aerial attacks to lawful military targets. Military targets are those that by their own nature, location, purpose, or use make an effective contribution to an enemy’s military capability and whose total or partial destruction, capture, or neutralization in the circumstances existing at the time of an attack enhance legitimate military objectives.

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