University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Robert C. Johansen

International law and time-honored ethical traditions prohibit the targeting of noncombatants. Yet in most recent conflicts, more civilians have been killed than soldiers. What can we do to increase the influence of legal and ethical norms supporting civilian immunity in order to reduce civilian casualties and delegitimize terrorism, which routinely targets civilians? Here are five recommendations:

1. Bolster the traditional distinction between combatants and noncombatants.

Noncombatants usually are not engaged in any direct violence against which adversaries need to protect themselves. But terrorists may deny that the noncombatants they target are innocent. Government officials sometimes select military targets that result in civilian casualties (so called “collateral damage”). Despite these realities, most people in conflict zones, including children, mothers, and the elderly living at home, qualify for immunity according to international law.

Emphasizing the norms against killing civilians may not have much immediate influence on terrorists. But a clear normative climate against killing civilians, if strengthened and supported throughout the world, could convince the occasional allies of terrorists, and perhaps some who might consider terrorist acts themselves, that indiscriminate violence against noncombatants is counterproductive.

2. Strictly apply the norm of civilian immunity as a measure of conduct for all people, not mainly as a convenient standard to justify condemnation of adversaries.

If governments use norms against killing noncombatants primarily to discredit opponents rather than to establish universal constraints on violence to protect human life, they will not succeed. The result will be the corrosive claim that proponents of civilian immunity are following a double standard, diverting attention from their unethical conduct. The most compelling case against terrorist acts is to lead by example.

3. Try not to privilege the lives of our combatants over the lives of the adversary’s noncombatants.

We erode the norms against killing civilians if we target our adversaries more freely in order to protect our own combatants more effectively. In the Kosovo conflict, our pilots bombed from safer, higher altitudes, but at the cost of increasing civilian casualties. By using unmanned drones, safely piloted from command centers thousands of miles away, the United States has killed Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, while also causing hundreds of civilian casualties.

Asymmetrical warfare can boomerang when it undermines immunity for one’s own civilians if the technologically weaker side retaliates with attempted bombings of U.S. citizens. Many counterterrorism experts say it would be prudent to curtail U.S. targeted killings that cause many unintended but foreseen civilian deaths.

4. Develop more inclusive efforts to strengthen protections for civilians, discourage political polarization, and diffuse geo-strategic confrontations.

A credible worldwide effort that emphasizes the shared interests of all societies in strengthening the norms against killing civilians, matched by serious efforts to address the grievances of the world’s dispossessed, could make a genuine difference. To reach Al Qaeda militants who willingly murder the innocent, more Muslim voices are needed to make the case for civilian immunity (as many already have), without appearing to be apologists for U.S. policies or the Westernizing influences of globalization.

To label any group of people as evil, rather than to criticize their particular evil or illegal deeds, can easily become the basis for intending to kill them indiscriminately. Al Qaeda’s notorious, polarizing labeling should instill caution in our own perceptions and statements. To justify killing a group of people on the basis of one’s own subjective judgment, no matter how heinous the deeds of some in that group, is an attribute of extremist thinking that we rightly deplore in others and should take pains to avoid ourselves.

5. Withdraw U.S. military forces from Muslim societies.

University of Chicago professor Robert Pape’s empirical studies show that suicide bombings correlate strongly with areas where U.S. military forces are deployed. “What nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that terrorists consider to be their homeland,” he writes.

When people believe their societies are facing a supreme emergency because of unwanted external penetration, they may conclude that extremist political violence is justified. The U.S. can avoid putting people in that position by refraining from military invasion and occupation of countries where we are not welcome.

Robert C. Johansen is a professor of political science and a senior fellow at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.