Minimizing Harm to Combatants

Nonlethal weapons, combatants' rights, and state responsibility 1

Authored by: Chris Mayer

Routledge Handbook of Ethics and War

Print publication date:  July  2013
Online publication date:  June  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415539340
eBook ISBN: 9780203107164
Adobe ISBN: 9781136261008


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It is uncontroversial that it is immoral for combatants to intentionally harm noncombatants. This concept, commonly referred to as noncombatant immunity, 2 forbids combatants from targeting noncombatants, even if the harm to the noncombatants enables the combatants to complete their mission. This prohibition is codified in the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC), and it is commanders' responsibility to ensure that their subordinates do not intentionally harm noncombatants. Noncombatant immunity does not, however, deem any action that causes harm to noncombatants as impermissible. It is recognized that unintentional harm will often come about as the result of military operations, and the doctrine of double effect provides a means of determining whether this unintentional harm is morally permissible. Wanting to offer further protection for noncombatants, Michael Walzer revises the doctrine of double effect to require due care to be taken when combatants' actions are likely to cause unintentional harm to noncombatants. 3 Exercising this due care may require combatants to assume more risk to themselves in order to protect noncombatants. Thus, combatants are not only prohibited from intentionally harming noncombatants, but they must actively seek to minimize unintentional harm. This move by Walzer makes clear the rights that noncombatants possess and the obligation that combatants have to respect them.

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