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Ukraine is currently suffering from a series of Russian attacks against civilian infrastructure, which might soon result in the entire country not having access to electricity. Does the Geneva convention now give Ukraine the right to mirror Russia's response and begin destroying purely civilian infrastructure on Russian territory?

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    It would also be deeply unwise. Russia would likely see that as a dramatic escalation
    – Valorum
    Nov 24, 2022 at 20:06
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    @user253751 that's not the standard. And it's irrelevant. Everything has potential military use. All civilians can be conscripted and become potential military personal. Civilian structures don't become military targets unless they are being actively used by the opposing military at the moment when they are targeted.
    – wrod
    Nov 25, 2022 at 3:35
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    Have to answer this question first: Did [those attacks] against Ukraine violate the Geneva Convention? The answer to that question if is a yes, then no, and vice versa. Nothing anybody does ever gives someone else the green light to do a second wrong thing.
    – Mazura
    Nov 25, 2022 at 3:39
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    @Valorum : although you're correct that it would be unwise (Ukraine has much less capabilities to hurt the Russian infrastructure and would be able to reach only a tiny portion of it, and the Russians can escalate more than the Ukrainians), this was not the question. The question was whether it would be a violation of the Geneva convention, and not whether it would be a good strategy.
    – vsz
    Nov 25, 2022 at 5:54

5 Answers 5

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The Geneva conventions do not give Ukraine the right to retaliate in kind if Russia has indeed breached the conventions (see Are power plants legitimate military targets under international law?). Common Article I of the conventions states:

The High Contracting Parties undertake to respect and to ensure respect for the present Convention in all circumstances.

There is no provision in the conventions which allows High Contracting Parties to commit breaches of the convention as a means of reprisal. Common Article II of the conventions states that a High Contracting Party remains bound by the Convention in relation to a non-signatory if the non-signatory 'accepts and applies' the convention's provisions.

Although one of the Powers in conflict may not be a party to the present Convention, the Powers who are parties thereto shall remain bound by it in their mutual relations. They shall furthermore be bound by the Convention in relation to the said Power, if the latter accepts and applies the provisions thereof.

As Russia is a High Contracting Party, this clause is not relevant.

Furthermore, Article 52 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions states:

Civilian objects shall not be the object of attack or of reprisals. Civilian objects are all objects which are not military objectives as defined in paragraph 2.

Therefore, even if Ukraine wanted to make use of customary international humanitarian law outwith the Geneva Conventions to justify a breach as means of reprisal, civilian infrastructure is expressly prohibited.

In addition, Ukraine's Military Instruction manual (2017) also explicitly prohibits reprisals against civilian infrastructure. It does allow for other reprisals as a last resort, but notes that these would constitute "deliberate violations of International Humanitarian Law". Paragraph 1.2.56 states (in Ukrainian):

Reprisals are generally prohibited deliberate violations of IHL in response to offenses committed by an adversary state with the aim of forcing the opposing party to end wrongful acts.

Reprisals can be used as a last resort, they must be commensurate with the enemy's violations.

It is prohibited to apply reprisals to:

  • civilians and civilian objects;

  • prisoners of war;

  • wounded, sick and persons who suffered a shipwreck or an aircraft accident;

  • medical and spiritual staff;

  • persons and objects that enjoy special protection;

  • objects necessary for the survival of the civilian population;

  • natural environment.

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    Another bit that may be worth noting: While a country can usually suspend a treaty in the event of material breaches by the other side, Article 60(5) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties explicitly forbids using that justification for humanitarian treaties (and especially for using it to justify reprisals against people protected by humanitarian treaties).
    – cpast
    Nov 24, 2022 at 20:12
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    "civilian infrastructure is expressly prohibited": but you don't quote paragraph 2 where "military objectives" is defined. The definition is very broad. An object need not be solely military or even primarily military to be excluded from "civilian objects": "military objectives are limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage."
    – phoog
    Nov 25, 2022 at 0:34
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    Sure, but people are likely to assume, incorrectly, that (for example) a power plant is "purely civilian infrastructure." The question's premise, that there are Russian attacks against civilian infrastructure, notably omits the qualifier "purely." It's one thing to say abstractly that Russian attacks against Ukraine's civilian infrastructure don't give Ukraine the right to attack Russia's, but in the context of this ongoing war, people are going to misunderstand what that actually means for the legality of the attacks they learn of in the news media.
    – phoog
    Nov 25, 2022 at 8:44
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    @phoog I don't think it's incorrect to assume a power plant is a civilian object as long as it's not exclusively used by the military. Reading articles 52 through 56 and their commentary (available through the "[Link]" at the top of each article on the ICRC site), it seems to me to that cutting power (by attacking power plants or power lines) to civilians cannot be justified by any military objective. Nov 25, 2022 at 10:39
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    @phoog To qualify as a military objective, it has to make "an effective contribution to military action", and on that the commentary in Art56 disagrees with the notion that "merely supplying electricity constitutes direct support of military operations", which I think is in line with the spirit of IHL. It also has to offer "a definite [i.e. purposeful and defined] military advantage" by its "total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization", accounting for civilian casualties in the case of a dual function object. That much is indeed fact-dependent. Nov 25, 2022 at 11:45
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The nearest case is perhaps the 1999 Kosovo war, where NATO bombed many targets in Serbia to compel a Serb surrender. NATO attacked many "dual use" targets, including according to Wikipedia, "bridges across the Danube, factories, power stations, telecommunications facilities", railways, the offices of a political party linked to the wife of the country's leader, and TV facilities accused of propaganda.

The authoritative 2000 UN inquiry's Kosovo Report found this "illegal but legitimate": illegal purely because it did not have UN authorisation, but legitimate because "all diplomatic avenues had been exhausted and there was no other way to stop the killings and atrocities in Kosovo". The Commission was critical of some of NATO's actions and called for "more constraints on the use of force than are embodied in the current law of war". All this shows that (aside from the lack of authorisation for the war) NATO's actions during the war were legitimate under international law at the time (including the 1977 protocol on the General Protection of Civilian Objects, which was in force then).

Based on this, it is reasonable to conclude that limited attacks on dual-use targets (including power stations) are legitimate if the war is otherwise legal and actions are necessary to prevent deaths or atrocities. Doing it purely as reprisal may be viewed differently, but many targets will have some military value (i.e. "dual use").

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    This does not provide the answer to the question, it comments on NATO actions in Kosovo and if they were legal or maybe not. This is not relevant.
    – Stančikas
    Nov 24, 2022 at 17:30
  • It would be nice to see the parallels made more explicit. I think your answer is clear, but it's poor form to leave answers in a state where they can be mocked as "the rest is left as an exercise for the reader".
    – fectin
    Nov 24, 2022 at 20:04
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    @Stančikas : it can be relevant because international "law" is not the same as the laws of a country where there is a central government capable of exercising power over every citizen. In international law there is no higher power (the UN does not have the physical power to enforce anything), it's mostly about precedents and about who can get away with what, given their political allies and opponents and trade embargoes.
    – vsz
    Nov 25, 2022 at 6:26
  • The only relevant name on this page is Geneva Convention.... Can country A do what country B did to them because they're angry now? No. Can country A bomb the shit out of country B and get away with it? Depends, +1.
    – Mazura
    Nov 26, 2022 at 22:18
  • Probably could have set North Vietnam on fire after the Tet Offensive and got away with it, if the 'conflict' wasn't already three years into its second decade and third set of invaders. It was actually a military victory for the US but also a political and propagandic deathknell. - How come that never happened? Burning jungle is hard? "Between June 1965 and August 1973, 126,615 sorties (B-52D/F/G) were flown over Southeast Asia." Well, apparently, you can do all that and still lose: Operation Arc Light
    – Mazura
    Nov 26, 2022 at 22:44
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A pure countervalue strategy is not acceptable under international law. I'm not aware of any exception which allows war crimes in retaliation for other war crimes, or because the perpetrator is in a desperate military position.

That being said, Ukraine could do a lot more to target the Russian defense industry and defense-related infrastructure. If that leads to Muscovites sitting in the dark because someone wanted to cut power to the Kremlin, it may be acceptable. (On the flip side, people in Kiew freezing because someone wanted to shut down the Kyiv Electric Railcar Repair Shop would not be a war crime, either. But there are Western translations that Russian sources admit/boast that freezing Ukraine is a tactic, which makes it a war crime.)

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  • Your reference does not even mention the word the "countervalue".
    – Stančikas
    Nov 24, 2022 at 17:32
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    @Stančikas, I linked to one specific section of the Wikipedia article "Countervalue" so readers don't have to scroll down.
    – o.m.
    Nov 24, 2022 at 17:56
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The Ten Commandments override the Haugue and Geneva conventions in importance. The commandment: “you shall not kill” means that we shouldn’t kill. Except maybe in a situation of critical self defence. It was therefore the desert walking Israelites did not engage in warfare with people groups that did not go to war against them. People whose hearts God hadn’t hardened. (Numbers 21:21-24; Deu 2:30).

Today both Russia and Ukraine claims that they are warring to protect themselves. To pacify this explosive situation a rewind back to 2014, when the then Ukrainian President were undemocrately ousted from office by violent demonstrators, and an amendment of what then was broken, needs to take place. Because a democratically elected president should only lose power through losing an election, or through being impeached in a legal manner. Not through a popular uprising. (Acts 19:38-40)

The other option is an ever escalating “vendetta” between the two countries. An undesired development that one day will spill over the borders into neighboring countries.

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Surprisingly, yes, it is now fair game.

In accordance with the standard set in 1952 Commentary on the Geneva Conventions, the convention (explained in the commentary by law.cornell.edu) only applies if the opposition nation accepts and applies the provisions itself (regardless of whether it is a signatory).

The Conventions apply to a signatory nation even if the opposing nation is not a signatory, but only if the opposing nation "accepts and applies the provisions" of the Conventions.

Following this standard, if the Russian Federation is in fact violating the Geneva Convention by targeting Ukraine's civilian infrastructure, then the Russian Federation is no longer protected, by the Geneva Convention, from such targeting.

If, on the other hand, the Russian Federation is not violating the Geneva Convention by targeting Ukraine's civilian infrastructure, then such targeting is not a violation per se. So Ukraine would not be violating the convention by doing the same targeting, either.


Which is not to say that it is a good idea for Ukraine to do this.

Politically it may destroy the existing goodwill and it may weaken Ukraine's future demand for a compensation for the damages if Ukraine openly and deliberately causes damages to the RF's civilian infrastructure.

But that's a different consideration. It is separate from the decision on whether this would amount to a violation of the Geneva Convention.

P.S. This is the resurrected answer that has been deleted by the post author. I think it is just correct. I assume that if the party very obviously does not follow the signed agreement, then the party has abandoned the agreement and is now a non-party. Signing the agreement and then just ignoring it should not give any additionally rights. Even if could come out of literal wording this way, I cannot imagine this to be the expected interpretation that would take majority in cases like voting for condemnation.

From the other side, Ukraine would get certain moral advantage and international respect by not going down after the aggressor, and wasting munitions on what does not bring direct military advantage may not be they strategy anyway. Also, some (not all) western weapons like Himars come with agreements not to strike the Russian territory with whem.

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    -1 The clause you’re quoting is about a party fighting a nonparty. The Geneva Conventions apply to wars between parties under all circumstances, regardless of whether one side is violating the conventions. Article 2 has 3 parts: wars between parties (even undeclared wars) are always covered, occupation of a party by a party is always covered, and in wars involving a nonparty the nonparty is covered if it accepts and applies the conventions.
    – cpast
    Nov 24, 2022 at 15:25
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    This answer was deleted for a reason. Back when international law developed, the European nations made a distinction between 'regular' wars in Europe and 'colonial' wars mostly in Africa and Asia. Even at war, they were willing to grant each other protections that would remain unavailable for victims of colonial aggression. Hence the distinction between a signatory accused of breaking the treaty and a non-signatory accused of not following it. The non-signatory might be some chieftain at the Northwest Frontier, the accused signatory would be another European power.
    – o.m.
    Nov 24, 2022 at 15:59
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    The deleted answer was deleted because the author realized it was a misinterpretation of Cornell’s summary, which became clear when comparing that summary to the actual treaty (which was more explicit about how “accepts and applies the treaty” is only for nonparties). It provides no support for your argument. Self-defense is also no justification: it is a concept in international law, but would not justify reprisals against civilians (since that doesn’t actually defend you).
    – cpast
    Nov 24, 2022 at 20:04
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    You are basing your answer on your opinion of what is the proper remedy to a signatory being a bad-faith signatory. You believe that a bad-faith signatory should lose the privileges which come with being a signatory. It's not an unreasonable opinion. But it is also not an authoritative opinion. An authoritative opinion would have to be issued by a panel of legal experts after an exhaustive review and a possible adjudication. There are other possible remedies. So unless you can find an authoritative legal opinion, which you can reference, this answer is based solely on your opinion.
    – wrod
    Nov 25, 2022 at 3:27
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    Also the point of the Geneva conventions isn't to protect belligerent nations from one another but to protect people. Russian civilians and soldiers should not lose the protections of the Geneva conventions as a result of some Russian general's decision to commit a war crime. If the conventions allowed this they would be as good as meaningless.
    – phoog
    Nov 25, 2022 at 9:09

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