Dictionary of Gross Human Rights Violations

Attacking Civilians, the War Crime of

By - Kjell Follingstad Anderson

Attacking civilians, one of the most serious war crimes, is a gross human rights violation. The prohibition against directly targeting civilians in armed conflict is also one of the most fundamental rules of international humanitarian law. It is rooted in the principles of distinction and civilian immunity: that one must distinguish between combatants and non-combatants (civilians), and that civilians are immune from direct attacks. Moreover, it has long been a social more that civilians must be considered as non-combatants and treated as such.

The elements of the crime of attacking civilians are that: 1) the perpetrator directed an attack; 2) the object of the attack was a civilian population or individual civilians not taking part in hostilities; 3) the perpetrator intended the civilian(s) as the object of the attack; 4) the attack took place within the context of an armed conflict; and 5) the perpetrator was aware of the existence of the armed conflict.

Attacking civilians is considered to be a grave breach of the Geneva conventions and, as such, it is subject to universal jurisdiction. Civilians (and civilian objects) are also considered to be "protected persons" under the Geneva Conventions and the Fourth Geneva Convention is exclusively focussed on the protection of civilians.

The war crime of attacking civilians was first articulated in modern international humanitarian law in the St. Petersburg Declaration (1868). It is also enshrined in Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, and the Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel landmines. The war crime of attacking civilians is now considered to be a part of customary international law. The following chart illustrates some of the articles in international legal statutes prohibiting attacks on civilians:

Figure 1.1: Articles in International Criminal Statutes Prohibiting Attacking Civilians:


Statute Article


8 (2)(b)(i), 8 (2)(e)(i)






4 (a)

(ICC = International Criminal Court; ICTY = International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia; ICTR = International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda; SCSL = Special Court for Sierra Leone).

At the international tribunals (the ICTY and the ICTR) at least twenty-seven individuals have been charged with the war crime of attacking civilians.