Civilian casualties

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Civilian casualties is a military term describing civilians killed, injured, or imprisoned by military action. Civilian casualties can be associated with the outcome of any form of military action regardless of whether civilians were targeted directly or not. Some researchers have included refugees and internally displaced persons in their definition of "civilian casualty".[1]

Civilian casualties occurs as a result of military actions such as the widespread use of weapons of mass destruction (i.e., chemical weapons) by all major belligerents during the First World War. Though officers on both sides of the conflict maintained that the use of chemical weapons was only limited on the battlefield, strong winds frequently blew the poison gases on nearby civilian towns. Since civilians didn't had warning systems as well having access to effective gas masks, they were at high risk of being exposed to deadly poison gas effects. An estimated 100,000-260,000 civilians were either killed or wounded by chemical weapons during the First World War and tens of thousands of more (along with military personnel) died from scarring of the lungs, skin damage, and cerebral damage in the years after the conflict ended. In the year 1920 alone, over 40,000 civilians and 20,000 military personnel died from the chemical weapons effects.[2][3]

Civilian casualties therefore include victims of atrocities such as the Nanking Massacre committed on a civilian population where hundreds of thousands of men were slaughtered, while girls and women ages ranging from 10 to 70 were systematically raped and/or killed by Japanese soldiers in 1937 during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The My Lai Massacre which involved the killing of hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians by United States soldiers in 1968 during the Vietnam War and the Batang Kali massacre which involved the killing of 24 unarmed villagers by United Kingdom soldiers in 1948 during the Malayan Emergency are also examples. Such military action, which has the sole purpose of inflicting civilian casualties, is illegal under modern rules of war, and may be considered a war crime or crime against humanity.

Following the Second World War, a series of treaties governing the laws of war were adopted starting in 1949. These Geneva Conventions would come into force, in no small part, because of a general reaction against the practices of the Second World War. Although the Fourth Geneva Convention attempted to erect some legal defenses for civilians in time of war, the bulk of the Fourth Convention devoted to explicating civilian rights in occupied territories, and no explicit attention is paid to the problems of bombardment and the hazardous effects in the combat-zone.[4]

In 1977, Protocol I was adopted as an amendment to the Geneva Conventions, prohibiting the deliberate or indiscriminate attack of civilians and civilian objects in the war-zone and the attacking force must take precautions and steps to spare the lives of civilians and civilian objects as possible.[5] Although ratified by 173 countries, the only countries that are currently not signatories to Protocol I are the United States, Israel, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Turkey.[6]

The Rome Statute defines that "intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population" to be illegal, but only came into effect on July 1, 2002 and has not been ratified by every country.[7]

The ethics of civilian casualties[edit]

Many modern nations' views on the ethics of civilian casualties align with the Just War theory, which advocates a system of proportionality. An act of war is deemed proportional in Just War theory if the overall destruction expected from the use of force is outweighed by the projected good to be achieved.[8] This view is a war-adapted version of utilitarianism, the moral system which advocates that the morally correct action is the one that does the most good.

However, moral philosophers often contest this approach to war. Such theorists advocate absolutism, which holds there are various ethical rules that are, as the name implies, absolute. One such rule is that non-combatants cannot be attacked because they are, by definition, not partaking in combat; to attack non-combatants anyway, regardless of the expected outcome, is to deny them agency. Thus, by the absolutist view, only enemy combatants can be attacked. The philosopher Thomas Nagel advocates this abolutist rule in his essay [9]War and Massacre.

Finally, the approach of pacifism is the belief that war of any kind is morally unjust. Pacifists sometimes extend humanitarian concern not just to enemy civilians but also to enemy combatants, especially conscripts.[10]

Civilian casualty ratio[edit]

The civilian casualty ratio in an armed conflict is the ratio of civilian casualties to combatant casualties or total casualties. The measurement can apply either to casualties inflicted by a particular belligerent or to casualties in the conflict as a whole.

The ratio of ten civilian casualties for every combatant is a frequently-cited, but disputed figure.[11]

Collateral damage[edit]

Main article: Collateral damage

Collateral damage is defined as unavoidable or accidental killing or injury of non-combatants or unavoidable or accidental destruction of non-combatant property caused by attacks on legitimate military targets during a war.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ahlstrom, C. and K.-A. Nordquist (1991). "Casualties of conflict: report for the world campaign for the protection of victims of war." Uppsala, Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University.
  2. ^ L. F. Haber (February 20, 1986). The Poisonous Cloud: Chemical Warfare in the First World War. Clarendon Press. p. 106-108. ISBN 0-1985-8142-4. 
  3. ^ Joel A. Vilensky (February 20, 1986). Dew of Death: The Story of Lewisite, America's World War I Weapon of Mass. Indiana University Press. p. 78-80. ISBN 0-2533-4612-6. 
  4. ^ Douglas P. Lackey (January 1, 1984). Moral Principles and Nuclear Weapons. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 213. ISBN 978-0-8476-7116-8. 
  5. ^ "Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977". The American National Red Cross. 
  6. ^ "Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977". International Committee of the Red Cross. 
  7. ^ Rome Statute
  8. ^ A statement by the United States Catholic Conference, November 1993.
  9. ^ Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Winter, 1972), 123-144.
  10. ^ Manifesto against conscription and the military system
  11. ^ Roberts, A. (2010). "Lives and Statistics: Are 90% of war victims civilians?" Survival 52(3): 115-136.

Further reading[edit]