The Doctrine of Proportionality
Translations of this item:
Proportionality in international law is not about equality of death or civilian suffering, or even about [equality of] firepower. Proportionality weighs the necessity of a military action against suffering that the action might cause to enemy civilians in the vicinity.
"Under international humanitarian law and the Rome Statute, the death of civilians during an armed conflict, no matter how grave and regrettable does not constitute a war crime.... even when it is known that some civilian deaths or injuries will occur. A crime occurs if there is an intentional attack directed against civilians (principle of distinction) or an attack is launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage (principle of proportionality)." — Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Chief Prosecutor, International Criminal Court.
"The greater the military advantage anticipated, the larger the amount of collateral damage -- often civilian casualties -- which will be "justified" and "necessary." — Dr. Françoise Hampton, University of Essex, UK.
As the Israeli ground incursion into Gaza continues, increased attention will be focused on the notion of "proportionality" in both the number of casualties on both sides and the sophistication of the weapons each side brings to bear. Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg characterized Israel's operations against Hamas in language that came close to an accusation of war crimes. "I really do think now the Israeli response appears to be deliberately disproportionate. It is amounting now to a disproportionate form of collective punishment." Even President Obama, who has been a firm advocate of Israel's self-defense in this instance, told reporters that he "encouraged" Prime Minister Netanyahu to "minimize civilian deaths."
An Israeli journalist called Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system "unsportsmanlike." He wondered what FIFA would say "if Germany, with its superior economy and industry, were to replace Manuel Neuer with a bionic goalkeeper... capable of calculating where each Argentine ball will come from, the exact position to stand in and amount of force needed to block it... On the modern battlefield (Israel) is a bionic Germany."
Even among Israel's friends – and some Israelis – a "yes, but..." response is common. "Yes" Hamas started it; "Yes" Hamas puts military infrastructure in civilian neighborhoods; "Yes" Israel is entitled to self-defense, "Yes" the Israelis warn Palestinians. "But" more than 240 Palestinians have been killed to date and only one Israeli has died directly from rocket fire.
Isn't that the definition of "disproportionate?" No. It isn't.
One journalist labeled Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system "unsportsmanlike" because it protects Israel's civilian population too well. (Image source: IDF)
Proportionality in international law is not about equality of death or civilian suffering, or even about firepower returned being equal in sophistication or lethality to firepower received. Proportionality weighs the military necessity of an action against the suffering that the action might cause to enemy civilians in the vicinity. A review of expert opinion – none of which was written in relation to Israel – helps to clarify. [All emphases below added.]
Prof. Horst Fischer, Academic Director of the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany, and Adjunct Professor at Columbia University, wrote in The Crimes of War Project:
The principle of proportionality is embedded in almost every national legal system and underlies the international legal order. Its function in domestic law is to relate means to ends... In the conduct of war, when a party commits a lawful attack against a military objective, the principle of proportionality also comes into play whenever there is collateral damage, that is, civilian casualties or damage to a non-military objective... attacks are prohibited if they cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, or damage to civilian objects that is excessive in relation to the anticipated concrete and direct military advantage of the attack. This creates a permanent obligation for military commanders to consider the results of the attack compared to the advantage anticipated.
Exactly as Israel does when it aborts missions after finding civilians used as human shields on rooftops.
According to the doctrine, a state is legally allowed to unilaterally defend itself and right a wrong provided the response is proportional to the injury suffered. The response must also be immediate and necessary, refrain from targeting civilians, and require only enough force to reinstate the status quo ante.
What constitutes status quo ante for Israel may be debatable – but surely a return to the period before 75% of Israel's citizens were terrorized by random rocket fire should be an acceptable definition.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, investigated allegations of war crimes during 2003 invasion of Iraq, and in 2006 published an open letter containing his findings. Included was this section on proportionality:
Under international humanitarian law and the Rome Statute, the death of civilians during an armed conflict, no matter how grave and regrettable, does not in itself constitute a war crime. International humanitarian law and the Rome Statute permit belligerents to carry out proportionate attacks against military objectives, even when it is known that some civilian deaths or injuries will occur.
A crime occurs if there is an intentional attack directed against civilians (principle of distinction) or an attack is launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage (principle of proportionality).
Finally, Dr. Françoise Hampton, University of Essex (UK) wrote about the concept of "military necessity."
Military necessity is a legal concept used in international humanitarian law (IHL) as part of the legal justification for attacks on legitimate military targets that may have adverse, even terrible, consequences for civilians and civilian objects. It means that military forces in planning military actions are permitted to take into account the practical requirements of a military situation at any given moment and the imperatives of winning.
What constitutes a military objective will change during the course of a conflict. As some military objectives are destroyed, the enemy will use other installations for the same purpose, thereby making them military objectives and their attack justifiable under military necessity. There is a similarly variable effect on the determination of proportionality. The greater the military advantage anticipated, the larger the amount of collateral damage - often civilian casualties - which will be "justified" or "necessary."
Civilian casualties are much to be mourned, but what becomes clear – absent the propaganda element or a shaky notion of sportsmanship – is that Israel has the right and indeed the obligation to defend its people, has the right to "win" the war of self-defense that it is fighting, and has taken account of the requirements of international law regarding "proportionality" and "military necessity." This, coupled with the willingness of Israel to accept the Egyptian-sponsored ceasefire, acceptance of a UN-sponsored humanitarian truce, and the continued provision of food, medicine, and electricity to the residents of Gaza, should help erase the "buts" of fair-minded people.
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free gatestone institute mailing list
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center and Editor of inFOCUS Quarterly.
Reader comments on this item
|"Still There??" [57 words]||Ron B.||Jul 23, 2014 21:39|
|Proportionality?? 1 Israeli for a 1000 Prisoners [36 words]||Charles||Jul 23, 2014 20:26|
|Proportionality and Symmetry [391 words]||Sigmund Derman||Jul 23, 2014 10:41|
|Proportionality is a personal decision [63 words]||Michael Conway||Jul 22, 2014 17:52|
|Israel and the New Jew [90 words]||Brian Wimborne||Jul 21, 2014 19:15|
|Unsportsmanlike Conduct [138 words]||Robert Haymond||Jul 21, 2014 15:01|
|War Crimes [109 words]||Peter Brown||Jul 21, 2014 12:24|
|WWII [71 words]||RobH||Jul 20, 2014 21:52|
|But... but... but... but... [52 words]||Barry Goldberg||Jul 20, 2014 19:29|
|Proportionality Doctrine [258 words]||Vladimir||Jul 20, 2014 18:11|
|The right to exist trumps the meaningless concept of 'proportionalty' [150 words]||Doug Mayfield||Jul 20, 2014 15:35|
|Dealing with Israel 's enemies. [68 words]||Jana||Jul 20, 2014 14:55|
|Who, Specifically, Measures This Proportionality? [30 words]||Charlie Griffith||Jul 20, 2014 13:34|
|Winston Churchill summed it up [65 words]||steve||Jul 20, 2014 13:08|
|Time for the World to Get Serious [115 words]||Dallas||Jul 20, 2014 12:41|
|mass media bias [77 words]||qwester||Jul 20, 2014 12:36|
|The military aggressor cannot act in defense [49 words]||Philip O'Hara||Jul 20, 2014 11:13|
|What is meant by "civilian"? [143 words]||Dr Frank Leavitt||Jul 20, 2014 09:48|
|proportionality's effects [153 words]||Robert Davis||Jul 20, 2014 09:11|
|Palestinian Proportionality? [223 words]||Bill Reed III||Jul 20, 2014 08:27|
|The Humanitarian & International Law as applied exclusively to Israel. [139 words]||Fred||Jul 20, 2014 07:31|
|An ill-considered paternalism? [77 words]||Mark Rowley||Jul 20, 2014 07:01|
|Obsessively careful use of force in war actually prolongs the war and endangers your own troops and citizens [232 words]||Deam||Jul 20, 2014 06:30|
|↔ AGAINST ISRAEL is enjoyable, easy and cheap. [84 words]||Evelyn||Jul 21, 2014 10:01|
Comment on this item
by Douglas Murray
If Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not qualified to speak about Islam, then who is? The answer is that the only figure they might accept is someone who does not make any criticisms of Islam.
Her criticisms are often raw because they are true. Able to do nothing about the truth, they try to silence the truth-teller.
by Nir Boms and Shayan Arya
Acknowledging the new ISIS danger while ignoring Iran's role in fomenting sectarian conflict in Syria and Iraq is not only shortsighted but dangerous. ISIS is not about to acquire nuclear capability, at least yet. Iran is.
If ISIS, a 25,000-strong militia, poses a serious threat, how can one disregard the 550,000-strong military of the soon-to-be nuclear Iranian regime?
The International Atomic Energy Agency issued a confidential report, which states that "little progress is being made," and that the Iran has implemented only three out of five nuclear transparency steps to which it had committed to completing before August 25. Does the West actually no longer view a nuclear Iran as a pressing threat?
by Shabnam Assadollahi
by Burak Bekdil
"Why are you running away, you sperm of Israel?" — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to a Muslim protestor.
"Being a sperm of Israel in Turkey means... to get used to living on hate speech, insults and curses every day; held accountable for every act of the Israeli government although you may never even have stepped foot in Israel; treated as a 'foreigner' in the country where you were born, served in the military and you pay taxes." — Vedat Haymi Behar, digital marketing solutions coordinator, in Radikal.
by Malcolm Lowe
The losers are declaring war on all who disagree with them. They have adopted Salmond's attempts to pit one part of the population against another: not just young against old, but manual workers against the middle classes, city slum dwellers against country people, men against women, any section of the population that preferred Yes against another section that did the opposite.
The foolish devotion of Labour councilors to Palestinian militancy paved the way for nationalist mania.