Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine last month and the deliberate targeting of civilians by Russia’s military forces flagrantly violate both the laws of war that regulate a state’s right to engage in war and the use of armed force as well as the rules that regulate the conduct of military forces once they are engaged in armed conflict.
Both Russia and Ukraine are signatories of the 1949 Geneva Conventions that set forth these principles. In the wake of the cataclysmic destruction of over 50 million civilians during World War II, the Geneva Conventions codified nearly a century of work on how to protect civilians, caregivers and the wounded during times of armed conflict. The convention, extended with three amendment protocols, has kept pace with armed conflict across the latter half of the 20th century.
Among the protocols, “Protection of the Civilian Population” describes types of indiscriminate attacks prohibited by the treaty, including “an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.” It further states “The civilian population … shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited.”