All CISAC News Commentary May 10, 2021

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.
President Joe Biden with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin listens in the East Room of the White House March 8, 2021 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong/Getty Images

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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