The Illegality of Targeting Civilians by Way of Belligerent Reprisal: Implications for U.S. Nuclear Doctrine
Scott Sagan and Allen Weiner argue that for legal, ethical, and strategic reasons, it is time for the United States to affirmatively recognize the customary international law prohibition on targeting civilians by way of belligerent reprisal.
Although the United States has, in recent years, unequivocally accepted the notion that international humanitarian law (IHL) applies to its nuclear operations, there’s a catch. To date, the U.S. government has not declared that it no longer reserves a purported right to target civilians by way of reprisal, in response to an unlawful attack against U.S. or allied civilians. As we have argued elsewhere, and as Adil Haque recently called on the Biden administration to do, it is time for the United States to acknowledge that customary international law today prohibits targeting civilians in reprisal for an adversary’s violations of the law of war.
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