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While there are rules in place, I think within the Geneva Conventions, regarding the protection of civilian infrastructure, the legal interpretation and application can vary. Deliberately targeting cities, even for military reasons, goes against the Conventions.

However, the rules provide too much leeway for armies to avoid clearly classifying their attacks as war crimes

So, I wonder, why isn't the bombing of cities under any circumstance considered a war crime, full stop? The same question applies to attacks launched from cities.

I specifically mean using heavy weapons such as rockets, bombs, artillery, etc., as I understand that sometimes warfare occurs in cities. In such cases, only light weapons that don't cause severe damage to cities should be used.

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    However, the rules provide too much leeway for armies to avoid clearly classifying their attacks as war crimes [citation needed] [opinion] [unsubstantiated]
    – Ian Kemp
    Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 8:43
  • @IanKemp Well, I see wars where armies commit all kind of what I would label a war crime, but different goverments are more than happy to come out and say that it wasn't a war crime, and it is within the rights of self defence or any other reasons. I see this an issue with the rules.
    – Mocas
    Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 9:19
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    @Mocas Then you need to make it clear that that is your opinion, because you're presenting it as fact.
    – Ian Kemp
    Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 9:36
  • @IanKemp It is a fact that goverments aren't agreeing on what is a war crime!!!
    – Mocas
    Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 9:39
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    @Mocas What I quoted does not say that. Please stop trying to move the goalposts.
    – Ian Kemp
    Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 9:44

6 Answers 6

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The short answer is that any military effort relies on production and distribution, which is largely carried out by civilians in urban areas. If a nation needs to produce military ordinance or subsistence materials for combat troops, these will often be processed in or near cities, where wealth, infrastructure, and workers are concentrated. Mass production in the countryside faces logistical problems: deficits in shipping, rail-lines, power availability, housing and amenities for workers, etc. The Geneva Convention did not wish to restrict nations from attacking military supply and production — an essential part of modern warfare — but did wish to minimize civilian casualties. Hence the somewhat mealy-mouthed language.

Unfortunately, the Geneva Convention was written with formal warfare between states in mind, and isn't too clear on guerrilla warfare, terrorism, or non-state military actions. But it's safe to say that the framers of the Geneva Convention did not wish to create a haven for combatants who might establish themselves within cities to hide behind civilians. Warfare has changed radically since the 1950s, and the rules are notably dated.

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    Counterpoint; cities, towns and villages have always been fought in and fought over, and used as strongholds for a retreating or defending army - often protecting the civilians from worse cruelty from the attackers/enemy. Further more, cities - their people, their infrastructure, their factories - have always been things a country may want to be protected with military power during a war. So armies have always "hid among the civilians" (I disagree with that phrase - it's doing it's job, not hiding or using civilians as shields) - doesn't absolve an attacker from minimizing civilian casualties! Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 3:10
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    While sabotage (which may resemble terrorism sometimes) are legal part of warfare, terrorists falls outside the scope of the Geneva conventions. To be covered by the Geneva convention; a soldier must 1) carry their weapons openly, 2) wear some uniform or identifying marking, 3) be part of a command structure. So resistance movement in nazi-occupied Europe during wwii, thus didn't qualify and worked outside the protections of the convention (until the last few months, when many started donning uniforms). That didn't give the nazis the right to kill civilians, the unarmed or hostages! Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 3:18
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    One of the things the Nuremberg trials established after the war, was that the Nazis practice of taking hostage and killing them after attacks from the resistance movement (ie. killing civilians as revenge), where in fact illegal - even though the resistance fought outside the protection of the Geneva convention. Side note: Even though the resistance could've done a task better than say a bomber-raid, the allies sometimes opted for clearly military attacks (like air-strike or a strike-force) rather than use resistance groups and risk hostages. The Nazis didn't usually retaliate after such. Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 3:27
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    A fundamental principle of the Geneva Convention was that while upholding it would put a country at a disadvantage relative to one that did not, it was not expected to put anyone that upheld it at any significant disadvantage relative to anyone else doing likewise, nor compel anyone that upheld it to do anything that would be unusually disadvantageous (e.g. letting Germany know that the U-505 crew had been captured alive).
    – supercat
    Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 17:57
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    "Mass production in the countryside faces logistical problems" – There's also the obvious problem that, even IFF you managed to move your factories, your logistics, your workers, etc. into the countryside, then all you have done is just create another city, and we're back to square one of the discussion. Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 14:38
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There is the concept of declaring a city about to be occupied an open city. Attacking an open city is not acceptable, but neither is defending it or using it as a base for attack. Looking at this the other way around, a city which is defended or which is used as a base of attack cannot claim immunity from counterattack.

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    A problem with this is that you can't really declare a city far from the front line to be open. Japan tried. Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 1:48
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    @Fizz, yes, the deal is that an oipen city will be occupied without resistance.
    – o.m.
    Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 5:13
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    @Fizz If you mean Manila during WW2, US Armed Forces were still using the city for logistical purposes at the time of the bombings. Never mind that it's deemed "not acceptable" to attack an open city - that doesn't mean it's not possible. Post-WW2, the open city proposal was declared inherently absurd, since Japan was not in a war. That said, I'm just copying from Wikipedia.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 10:31
  • This is the right answer. A city CAN opt-in to "no bombing, please", through this mechanism. Taking cities out of war entirely would go counter to any experience people have with how wars actually work.
    – Tom
    Commented Nov 23, 2023 at 11:49
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There is a real risk in creating laws that do not achieve a minimum threshold of actual buy-in and compliance.

For examples, you could refer to the US Prohibition.

Or the Hague 1899 Convention expecting submarines to surface and hail vessels before attacking them.

Cities, in the 20th and 21st century are important areas to pin defenses on during high intensity warfare, analogous to castles in medieval times.

  • buildings afford cover. This has been the case from Stalingrad to Mariupol. Would you want to go back in time and tell the USSR to not fight in Stalingrad?

  • cities are nexus points for road and rail networks, so often can't be bypassed.

It is therefore unrealistic to expect all defending armies to forego their use. And equally unrealistic to expect attackers to consider them off-limits. By doing this clear, deliberate, avoidable, acts which do contradict the laws of war get normalized and pressure for enforcement drops.

Best to define realistic cut offs for war crimes. And then actually investigate them and prosecute offenders. In the case of cities, a lot of what IHL pertains to is evacuating civilians and not targeting civilians.

Not like there isn't any ground to investigate currently-sanctioned events in the context of this war.

p.s. About the comments. This answer is not interested in justifying or rationalizing the strategic air bombing campaigns in WW2. It is concerned - see my 2 bullet points - with urban operations against cities, in the context of a ground advance against urban chokepoints. As Mariupol, as Stalingrad, as Gaza. A lot of WW2 bombings could be considered war-crimes territory, with a, sizable, defense being mountable on the exceptionalism of fighting the Nazi regime. So, please don't pipe up too much about Dresden, Hamburg, Rotterdam, etc... Those were not war circumstances that I am defending. At least not in "regular" wars.

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Because if you make the main objective of a war illegal, no one will care about your law. Wars are fought for control over territories, and you hold territory by holding the administrative centers of those territories (and cities are also major transportation hubs crucial for any war, as other answers stated)

Whether countries will abide to treaties and conventions is a game theory question. How much is it worth, and how much would it hinder the war effort?

  • For example, if the regulation is about not shooting at enemy medics, then it's worth abiding to. They won't get any significant advantages by shooting at enemy medics, and it would be beneficial to abide to such a regulation: the enemy won't shoot at their medics either, and violating such a regulation would lead to diplomatic difficulties and lost international prestige.

  • However, if it's about not being able to accomplish the main objectives of the war, then they just won't care about the regulations.

Summarized, just because you outlaw wars, it won't stop wars from happening. However if the regulations limit things in a way to reduce suffering without hindering the achievement of the main objectives of a war, then countries will be more likely to respect them.

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    Well, some objectives like that ("I just want your city") have been outlawed by the UN charter as valid grounds for starting a war. Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 1:51
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    @Fizz : Indeed, therefore "I just want your city" is not part of the declaration of war (if there even is such a thing) or in the official justification for the war. But it still often is one of the main objectives, even if they give some other justification.
    – vsz
    Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 5:41
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    Since WW2 most wars are not fought for control over territories anymore, at least not as the main goal. Think about all the wars fought by the US, for instance. The self-determination principle makes any colonization war illegal.
    – Erwan
    Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 20:30
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    Shooting enemy medics gives you a big advantage because their injured soldiers can't return to the front lines as easily (or at all). However, you don't shoot their medics in the hope they won't shoot your medics, and then neither of you has an advantage but less people die, which is good. Some factions, like Russia, who do not care about their own soldiers dying, specifically target enemy medics. Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 11:58
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It's generally acknowledged that deliberate and indiscriminate targeting of cities, even with a military objective, can be viewed as contrary to the principles of the laws of war.

There is no need for weasel words. Indiscriminate attacks are explicitly forbidden in Article 51 of the 1977 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions:

  1. Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited. Indiscriminate attacks are:

    (a) those which are not directed at a specific military objective;

    (b) those which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective; or

    (c) those which employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required by this Protocol;

    and consequently, in each such case, are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.

That is, indiscriminate attacks are war crimes, regardless of where they happen.

So, I wonder, why isn't the bombing of cities under any circumstance considered a war crime, full stop?

Bombing entire cities is an indiscriminate attack and therefore a war crime.

What is allowed is bombing military targets within cities, provided your aim is good enough to meet the standard of proportionality as set out in paragraph 5b of article 51:

  1. Among others, the following types of attacks are to be considered as indiscriminate:

    (a) an attack by bombardment by any methods or means which treats as a single military objective a number of clearly separated and distinct military objectives located in a city, town, village or other area containing a similar concentration of civilians or civilian objects; and

    (b) 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.

That is, you may engage military targets in cities as long as incidental suffering of civilians is not "excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated".

Now, you are correct that this is a judgement call. However, there is a lengthy commentary, as well as some case law, which I can not reproduce here in their entirety.

One paragraph of this commentary is relevant to your question though:

The delegation which voted against justified its vote by arguing that the article could seriously hinder the conduct of military operations against an invader and compromise the exercise of the right to self-defence recognized in Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations. According to this delegation, the provisions relating to indiscriminate attacks should not be such as to prevent a State from defending its territory against an invader, even if this were to entail losses in its own population. Several delegations made similar statements.

That is, there were concerns that outlawing combat in cities would "seriously hinder the conduct of military operations against an invader". I think that explains why the diplomatic conference chose not to outlaw urban combat entirely, but permitted it as long as attacks meet the standards of distinction, proportionality, and precaution.

I specifically mean using heavy weapons such as rockets, bombs, artillery, etc., as I understand that sometimes warfare occurs in cities. In such cases, only light weapons that don't cause severe damage to cities should be used.

That's pretty much what the Geneva Conventions say. The only difference is that the Geneva Conventions only protect civilians and civilian objects, not cities entire. Military objectives in cities may be attacked as long as the attack is carried out with sufficient distinction, proportionality, and precaution to avoid excess injury to civilians. In practice, this means that weapons must not leave craters greater than the target. But if a city contains a sufficiently large military target (say, a military base), the use of heavy weaponry is allowed as long as it can be expected to be mostly on target.

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  • In fact, proportionality and discriminately are the issues. Who decided what is proportional and discriminate? It is a spectrum, a gray zone that is not fixed and set, and that is the whole point of my question. Armies waging wars, destroying cities, and claiming anything to justify their total carpet bombing of cities. Where if heavy weapons were banned agaisnt cities, they won't have a chance damaging cities like that.
    – Mocas
    Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 8:30
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    Total destruction of cities and carpet bombing is a war crime. There may be a gray area, but the actions you mention are not in this gray area, but clearly illegal. Making wholesale destruction of cities, which is already twice illegal (violates distinction, violates proportionality) triple illegal won't improve matters, because the difficulty lies in enforcing justice, not defining justice.
    – meriton
    Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 16:47
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    This is a really good answer. And the only one that quotes IHL. I think if you were to mention IHL in regards to human shields and who is legally/morally culpable this would be perfect.
    – Questor
    Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 17:45
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    @Mocas it is a gray zone... Because it is a gray zone, there isn't a one answer fits all situations. It was written so that countries interested in having humane wars will place valid military targets away from population centers as much as they are able. So that they do not make their population centers valid military targets. While not making it illegal for them to place military assets where they are needed.
    – Questor
    Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 17:55
  • Interestingly that delegation was Romania. I think that by then they were pretty much under firm Soviet-aligned gov't so they were probably just being mouthpieces for the latter. In WW2, the USSR did sometimes leave big mines in cities that they detonated over time (once Germany occupied them). Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 12:26
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The objective of the Fourth Geneva Convention wasn't to protect civilians at all costs.

It was to discourage mass slaughter of enemy population for vindictive or genocidal reasons. This practice used to be common in Antiquity, subsided somewhat late in the Renaissance, and came into vogue again during WWII.

The language is deliberately worded to restrict excessive casualties, which are casualties not required to achieve the military objective.

During WWII, both sides have engaged in deliberate destruction without a military objective, such as the razing of Warsaw by Germany during their retreat, or the bombing of Nagasaki by the US, or a number of lesser-known acts. The Fourth Convention sought to reduce this.

One could argue that any offensive war can count as a crime under modern international law, at least for the losing side, but criminalizing war itself wasn't the conventions' intent. And any war results in a large number of civilian casualties. Cities are valuable military objectives due to their industrial and defensive utility, so large-scale war tends to revolve around controlling them.

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