The 8th Annual Minerva/ICRC Conference on International Humanitarian Law – Military Objectives and Objects of War: An Uneasy Relationship

Conference Call For Papers
The 8th Annual Minerva/ICRC Conference on International Humanitarian Law – Military Objectives and Objects of War: An Uneasy Relationship

Jerusalem, 24-25 November 2013

The Minerva Center for Human Rights, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Delegation in Israel and the Occupied Territories

INTRODUCTION: The Minerva Center for Human Rights at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Israel and the Occupied Territories are organizing an international conference that seeks to explore the concept of “military objective”, which is foundational to the law governing the conduct of hostilities. The conference, the eighth in the series of Minerva/ICRC annual international conferences on International Humanitarian Law (IHL), with the cooperation of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, is scheduled for 24-25 November 2013 in Jerusalem.

Recipients of this call for papers are invited to submit proposals to present a paper at the conference. Authors of selected proposals will be offered full or partial flight and accommodation expenses. Submission deadline: 15 June 2013

BACKGROUND: The 8th Annual Minerva/ICRC Conference on International Humanitarian Law aims to explore zones of real or apparent indeterminacy linked to the concept of “military objective”.

In recent years, much attention has been given to the distinction between persons who are legitimate targets of attack in armed conflict and those who are not. Far less attention seems to have been given to the equally fundamental distinction between those objects which may be targeted (i.e. military objectives) and those which may not. However, the proliferation of armed conflicts involving hostilities in areas where civilian and military elements are intermingled, as well as the increased deployment of highly accurate weaponry capable of striking precise points, have highlighted the need for a clearer articulation of the exact points in space and time at which an object can be attacked. Finally, the increased prevalence of asymmetric conflicts that are unlikely to result in a clear military victory raises questions concerning the continued viability and/or desirability of following existing definitions of military objectives.

Indeed, while conventional and customary IHL establish a detailed definition of military objectives, there still remains a troubling degree of ambiguity as to when and to what extent objects constitute a legitimate target of attack.

One very fundamental point which seems to require further clarification is the question of how to define the physical limits, or contours, of the military objective. Thus, for example, when a part of a complex of structures or even a single structure is used in a manner that effectively contributes to military action, and its destruction, in the circumstances ruling at the time, would afford a definite military advantage, questions remain about whether the entire complex/structure can be considered a military object, or whether the opposing belligerent is, always or sometimes, required to differentiate between the components of the object, some of which may be considered military and others civilian. A related question concerns the degree of precision required to determine the spatial confines or the exact location of the military objective. An attack would be unlawful if the location of the objective was not ascertained with sufficient precision – but what degree of precision would suffice? If an attack were launched against an entire neighbourhood known to host a military objective while it was not known in which precise part of the neighbourhood the objective is situated, it would clearly be unlawful. However, the case becomes less clear the more narrowly the objective can be confined to a specific point. For example, where do the contours of an objective situated in a room on a floor in a particular building end?

Questions about the spatial contours of military objectives and the degree of precision required in determining their location are pertinent not only for the proper application of the principle of distinction, but also in determining the interplay between this principle and the principle of proportionality. Indeed, under the IHL rules governing the conduct of hostilities, the principle of distinction has lexical priority over the principle of proportionality. In light of this and in view of the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks emanating from the principle of distinction, proportionality calculations can only be employed in relation to an attack that is directed at a specific military objective. To illustrate, consider a case (such as which occurs frequently in contemporary armed conflicts) where it is known that munitions are located somewhere within a compound, but – despite all feasible efforts – it was not possible to determine which exact part of the compound contains the munitions. In such case, if the entire compound were deemed to constitute a single military objective the legality of the attack would depend on an evaluation of proportionality – it would be lawful to attack it if the expected incidental harm to civilians is not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the destruction of the objective. On the other hand, if it is only the munitions or the specific part of the compound holding them which constitutes a military objective then it would be indiscriminate and therefore unlawful to direct an attack at the entire compound irrespective of the military advantage anticipated.

Questions about the precise spatial contours of military objectives have become particularly pertinent in light of the increased availability of precision guided munitions (PGM). Indeed, now that it is possible to strike at a very precise part of a structure, there appear to be grounds to question whether it would be lawful to treat an entire building (and certainly a whole compound or complex) as a military objective, or whether instead the military objective includes only the particular part of the building/complex/compound holding an object whose destruction, in the circumstances ruling at the time, would offer a definite military advantage, or indeed the specific object itself. Related questions that may arise concern the extent to which the availability of PGMs affect the application of IHL rules on targeting. For example, it may be asked to what extent, if at all, does a party in possession of PGM incur extra obligations when launching attacks? Is it compelled to use the PGM in its possession? Is it required to direct its attacks at more finely defined objectives (e.g. at a rocket launcher on the second floor, rather than at the floor or the entire building)? Are parties not in possession of PGMs prohibited from launching certain attacks that those in possession of PGM may undertake (e.g. if there attack would destroy the whole building rather than just the rocket launcher on the 2nd floor)?

Another set of questions that comes up involves dual use targets. Such questions may have a temporal dimension – the duration of the period during which an object qualifies as a military objective. Thus, for example, if a structure is used by an armed group as a place from which to direct and coordinate military operations, does the structure constitute a military objective only while in fact being used for military purposes, or can it be said that its designated use (its “purpose”) justifies targeting it even, say, when no enemy personnel are using it or present in it at the time of attack? Another relevant dimension involves the increased reliance by the military on civilian infrastructure, such as telecommunication or Internet networks, private mapping services (such as google earth) and private equipment manufacturers. Under these circumstances of complete intermingling of civilian and military infrastructures the very identification of a military objective may raise difficult issues (separately from questions relating to the proportionality of targeting such civilian infrastructure).

Finally, the shifting goals of armed conflicts in an era of asymmetric conflict – moving away from military subjugation of the adversary to more abstract political goals such as winning hearts and minds, deterrence, communicating certain messages to the adversary etc. – may invite a re-evaluation of the continued relevance of the definition of military objectives found in the 1868 St. Petersburg Declaration and the 1977 Additional Protocols. Put differently, a question may be raised as to whether the changing nature of conflicts merits redefinition of military objectives, with a view to offering stronger humanitarian protections to victims of war, and preventing excessive harm to human lives and property. For example, can one take the position that targeting empty government buildings -designed to induce the adversary to discontinue the conflict – may be preferable to targeting military camps leading to loss of lives of enemy combatants and civilian collaterally harmed? Can one assert that a military engaged in a campaign aimed at winning hearts and minds should not target low-level military objectives that do not pose a short-term threat to the said military?

In light of the dramatic humanitarian implications and significant practical and legal ramifications at stake, there is a pressing need for legal scholars and practitioners to clarify these and other related questions in an effort to establish greater clarity in delineating which objects constitute military objectives and, conversely, which are those that remain protected from direct attack.

PAPER SUBMISSION PROCEDURE: Researchers interested in addressing these and other questions related to the conference topic are invited to respond to this call for papers with a 1-2 page proposal for an article and presentation, along with a brief CV. Proposals should be submitted by email to the Minerva Center for Human Rights at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem ( by 15 June 2013.

Applicants should expect notification of the committee’s decision by mid-July 2013. Written contributions (of approx. 10-25 pages) based on the selected proposals will be expected by 1 November 2013. The Israel Law Review (a Cambridge University Press publication) has expressed interest in publishing selected full length papers based on conference presentations, subject to its standard review and editing procedures.

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