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I'm just the average Joe here with no knowledge of wars or politics, so please bear with my simple question.

I've been watching the news in Ukraine and there's something I cannot understand. I see day-to-day news of missiles hitting non-military targets in Ukraine (shopping mall today) and I was wondering if this is legal according to any war treaties.

I thought armies fought against armies only, but it seems I'm clearly mistaken.

Is there any provision in the Geneva Conventions or any other one that address this circumstance, or this is just normal, expected warfare?

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    The reports I've seen about such attacks characterize them as war crimes. Do the reports you've seen not mention this?
    – phoog
    Jun 27 at 18:02
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    @JoeDiNottra Fact is that the time that the Allies were firebombing happily away in Dresden and Tokyo it was after repeat intentional targeting of civilian populations by the Axis powers (Nanking, Rotterdam, Warsaw). By the time this was going, the notion of attacking just military stuff was a fig leaf and noble intentions about limiting civilian casualties wouldn't be making a comeback for a long time. An extremely influential military treatise in the 30s was Douhet's Command of the Air. Jun 27 at 21:04
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    Air forces, both Allied and Axis, were crafted on its guidance (arguably the Germans aimed too much to implement tactical bombing to really follow). Its central, simple, motto: "drop 300 tons of bomb on an enemy capital and the population will sue for peace". There is no way that is unclear about the intent to deliberately target civilians. Besides, the Geneva conventions only came in 1949. Also, FWIW, Germany initially bombed London after UK bombed Berlin (minor raid). Jun 27 at 21:11
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    @LorenPechtel yes, but that doesn't mean that targeting was necessarily undertaken to maximize military damage while minimizing the civilian impact. Plausible deniability. The aiming point in Hiroshima, for example, was chosen for its proximity to the center of the city, not for maximizing damage to military facilities, which were all to the south and east of the aiming point. I don't know anything about actual targeting orders in Dresden or London, but commanders on both sides of the European war are known to have sought to break civilian morale by destroying civilian targets.
    – phoog
    Jun 28 at 8:23
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    Remember that most countries consider themselves sovereign and obey the Geneva Convention (and other conventions) by choice. In theory, a country could make targetting civilians legal simply by withdrawing from Geneva Convention Treaty and changing its own laws. Jun 28 at 13:57

3 Answers 3

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The title is somewhat badly phrased in relation to what the body asks. Because civilians can die in war without being (deliberately) targeted, aka the fabled "collateral damage".

This is certainly not the last word on the matter, but Wikipedia quotes this answer from the office of the ICC prosecutor:

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) (Article 8(2)(b)(i)) 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) (Article 8(2)(b)(iv).

Article 8(2)(b)(iv) criminalizes: Intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated; Article 8(2)(b)(iv) draws on the principles in Article 51(5)(b) of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, but restricts the criminal prohibition to cases that are “clearly” excessive. The application of Article 8(2)(b)(iv) requires, inter alia, an assessment of:
(a) the anticipated civilian damage or injury;
(b) the anticipated military advantage; and
(c) whether (a) was “clearly excessive” in relation to (b).

As you can see, there's a fair bit of room of interpretation for what are "clearly" excessive civilian casualties. Hopefully someone can illustrate this with case law.

As for hitting shopping malls... well, it depends if they are still used as such. I'm fairly reluctant to link to Russian MoD videos, but in one such one can see a military vehicle parked in front of what seems to be an office building-mall complex before it's blasted by what's probably a ballistic missile. (You can also see the aftermath in other videos; i.e. facade of the building is gone.) There's also a Wikipedia article on that strike. Now whether Russia has real-time intelligence on every target of that kind before striking it... who knows...

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    Just my two cents to add directly to the answer: Russian missiles are nowhere near as accurate as NATO ones. And the level of training of launcher operators seems to also be lower. It would be hard to prove that they aimed at what they hit if there was a legitimate target in about a kilometer radius. They can reasonably say it was just their poor equipment and they didn't want to. Who knows, that may even be true in some cases. Personally I do not believe it is, but it is plausible enough :(
    – Mołot
    Jun 28 at 10:08
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    A few military vehicles in front of a busy shopping center does not make it a target where expected military gains are proportional to expected civilian losses -> war crime. However, and I fully get Russia would not really want to trumpet that aspect, the missiles were launched at extreme range and may not have struck exactly where intended, in this case. Too many cases of Russian attacks on civilians however: systematic war crimes are happening, not just "mistakes", which this one conceivably is. Jun 28 at 18:32
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica, "war crimes" are really whatever the winning side say they are. It is unlikely that Russia's circumstances will be reduced to the point that the West "wins" like it did over the Axis powers in WW2, and therefore claims of "war crime" are likely always to be moot.
    – Steve
    Jul 2 at 8:35
  • @Steve BS! War crimes are what are defined as such by the Geneva conventions. To which Russia is a signatory. There are categories and levels of war crimes, mistakes are admissible defense, as Fizz says. So is military necessity. In Nam, war crimes certainly would have included My Lai, as the US itself admitted. War crimes exist separate from whether the perpetrators are prosecuted or not. And, yes, whether or not a country's overall commanders encourage them, or whether these are the results of out-of-control individuals is relevant too. Jul 2 at 18:01
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica, laws are defined ultimately by judges, not by documents. And as I say, unless Russia is reduced to utter submission, then there will never be any judgment upon it other than its own.
    – Steve
    Jul 2 at 20:40
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The answer to the title question is, broadly, 'yes'. Before going into that, I'll point out that it's not legal for Russia to directly attack the shopping mall, but they claim that they hit a neighbouring weapons depot which triggered the fire.

Now to the question. The laws of war prohibit intentional targeting of civilians, but the definition of 'civilian' is crucial. The definition in the Geneva conventions is:

  1. A civilian is any person who does not belong to one of the categories of persons referred to in Article 4 A (1), (2), (3) and (6) of the Third Convention and in Article 43 of this Protocol. In case of doubt whether a person is a civilian, that person shall be considered to be a civilian.

Article 4A goes on to exclude the armed forces, militias, and "Inhabitants of a non-occupied territory, who on the approach of the enemy spontaneously take up arms to resist the invading forces, without having had time to form themselves into regular armed units, provided they carry arms openly and respect the laws and customs of war."

Under this definition it's easy to think of examples where an army would target a civilian: e.g. spies, terrorists, or someone is conducting covert sabotage against them.

Finally, it's illegal to provide aid to the foreign power, so someone who does that can be (and has been, in the current war) targeted.

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  • The Russian claim of the fire spreading (at Kramatorsk) is not believable in hindsight. They landed 2 missiles 500m from each other, bracketing the factory complex bbc.com/news/61967480 Yeah the Russian press was full of nonsense denials which TBH helps their case a lot less than they probably think. And even the MoD claim of where the (Western) weapons shippments were thought to be exactly was rather vague, probably intentionally so.
    – Fizz
    Jul 1 at 18:28
  • @Fizz that's for another question. You could ask and answer it: "is the Russian claim of fire spreading believable?" or something like that.
    – Allure
    Jul 2 at 7:45
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The question is to target, so illegal. You cannot just configure the rocket to fly into that you think is a working shopping mall full of civilians, for propaganda purposes to scare the G7 meeting and also the rest of the world. Some sources claim indeed Russia did exactly that. Would not be very good. The rocket must be set to fly into legitimate military target.

There are also rules about which weapons are appropriate to use near civilians. For instance, the X-22 (Kh-22) is the ancient 1962 design, highly inaccurate Soviet rocket, designed for destroying ships (source). There was the legitimate target (machine repair factory and not a ship) 500 m. away (source) from the shopping center, and the attacker likely just missed. Using such "high precision" weapons near civilians and not for they intended purpose may be illegal if there are modern rockets at hand. If not, may be complex to decide should one stop attacks or use that is still in they disposition. They now claim the fire spread from legitimate target into the shopping center but western analytics think it is too far to look convincible.

The requirement to strike the legitimate target in the immediate vicinity of the shopping center outside the usual opening hours of the center looks appropriate and proportional (source).

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    The last bit is most definitely incorrect. If there are civilians huddled at an (e.g.) airforce base then you can of course bomb the base because the military advantage is proportional to the collateral damage. Maybe actually read the Geneva conventions?
    – uberhaxed
    Jun 28 at 15:42
  • Reference added. Looks like there are some rules related to inaccurate weapons in a wrong place. I actually think Russians simply missed the legitimate target with they museum missile intended for ships. With shopping mall destroyed and no damage to the military, nothing is here "proportional". Maybe just a wrong weapon.
    – Stančikas
    Jun 28 at 17:55
  • The Geneva conventions only apply to the rigor of "anticipated" military advantage, not realized advantage. So long as they had a plan (even if the plan goes awry) they can't be held responsible for violations in retrospect.
    – uberhaxed
    Jun 28 at 18:13
  • Where the forces being fought are irregulars, it's unlikely ever to be "disproportionate" to target civilians in place or to cause mass civilian casualties. Whether such attacks would promote the political interests of the attacker is another question, but here the political interests at stake are the winning or losing of a proxy war, not just the pacification of Ukraine.
    – Steve
    Jul 2 at 8:48

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