The principle of distinction is a fundamental principle of international humanitarian law which provides that parties to an armed conflict must “at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives”. This implies that indiscriminate attacks and the use of indiscriminate means and methods of warfare are prohibited.

See Fundamental principles of IHLAdverse distinctionCivilian populationCombatantsCivilian objectsMilitary objectivesIndiscriminate attacksMeans of warfareMethods of warfare;



obligation to distinguish between legitimate targets and civilians, and between military objectives and civilian objects

PI, 48 

PI, 52

CIHL, 1 and 7

obligation of combatants to distinguish themselves

GCIII, 4/A(1) and (2)

PI, 44/3

CIHL, 106



Malaysia, Osman v. Prosecutor

Nigeria, Pius Nwaoga v. The State

Amnesty International, Breach of the Principle of Distinction

United States, The Schlesinger Report

Afghanistan, Code of Conduct for the Mujahideen (Art. 63)

United States, Status and Treatment of Detainees Held in Guantanamo Naval Base

ECHR, Khatsiyeva v. Russia (Paras. 132-138)

Cambodia/Thailand, Border Conflict around the Temple of Preah Vihear

Belgium, Public Prosecutor v. G.W.

ICRC Appeals on the Near East

Israel/Gaza, Operation Cast Lead

Israel, Human Rights Committee’s Report on Beit Hanoun

United States/United Kingdom, Report on the Conduct of the Persian Gulf War

Armed Conflicts in the former Yugoslavia (Para. 13)

Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, NATO Intervention

South Sudan: Medical Care Under Fire

European Court of Human Rights, Kononov v. Latvia

Autonomous Weapon Systems

U.S., Lethal Operations against Al-Qa’ida Leaders

Libya, NATO Intervention 2011

UN, Report of the Secretary-General for the World Humanitarian Summit

ICRC, International Humanitarian Law and the challenges of contemporary armed conflicts in 2015 (Paras. 229-230)

Libya, Report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (2014/15)

Syria, Report by UN Commission of Inquiry (March 2017)

Afghanistan, Bombing of a Civilian Truck

Italy, Use of force against ambulances in Iraq

Syria, the Battle for Aleppo

Iraq/Syria/UK, Drone Operations against ISIS

Iraq, The Battle for Mosul

Germany, Aerial Drone Attack in Mir Ali/Pakistan

Syria, Syrian rebels treat captured Filipino soldiers as 'guests'

Central African Republic/Democratic Republic of Congo/Uganda, LRA attacks

Central African Republic, Coup d'Etat

Georgia: Attacks against peacekeepers

Somalia/US, Airstrikes in Somalia

“Great March of Return” Demonstrations and Israel’s Military Response

Yemen , Humanitarian Impact of the Conflict


Suggested readings:

SOLF Waldemar A., “Protection of Civilians Against the Effects of Hostilities under Customary International Law and under Protocol I”, in American University Journal of International Law and Policy, Vol. 1, 1986, pp. 107-135.

BROWN Kenneth B., “Counter-Guerrilla Operations: Does the Law of War Proscribe Success?”, in Naval Law Review, Vol. 44, 1997, pp. 123-173.
DAVID Eric, “Respect for the Principle of Distinction in the Kosovo War”, in YIHL, Vol. 3, 2000, pp. 81-107.
DINSTEIN Yoram, “Distinction and Loss of Civilian Protection in International Armed Conflicts”, IYHR, Vol. 38, 2008, pp. 1-16
FERRELL William H., “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Status: Uniforms, Distinction and Special Operations in International Armed Conflict”, in Military Law Review, Vol. 178, Winter 2003, pp. 94-140, online:
GILADI Rotem, ““Undercover” Operations and IHL Advocacy in the Occupied Palestinian Territories”, in Journal of Conflict and Security Law, Vol. 14, No. 3, 2009, pp. 393-439
KLEFFNER Jann K., “From “Belligerents” to “Fighters” and Civilians Directly Participating in Hostilities: on the Principle of Distinction in Non-International Armed Conflicts One Hundred Years After the Second Hague Peace Conference”, in NetherlandsInternational Law Review, Vol. 54, No. 2, 2007, pp. 315-336
PETERS Ralph, “The New Warriors Class”, in Parameters, Summer 1994, pp. 16-26
PFANNER Toni, “Military Uniforms and the Law of War”, in IRRC, No. 853, March 2004, pp. 93-130
PLAW Avery, “Upholding the Principle of Distinction in Counter-Terrorist Operations: a Dialogue”, in Journal of Military Ethics, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2010, pp. 3-22.
SCHMITT Michael N., “The Impact of High and Low-Tech Warfare on the Principle of Distinction”, in ARNOLD Roberta & HILDBRAND Pierre-Antoine (eds), International Humanitarian Law and the 21st Century’s Conflicts, Lausanne, Edis, 2005, pp. 169-189
URBINA Julio Jorge, Protección de las víctimas de los conflictos armados, Naciones Unidas y derecho internacional humanitario: desarrollo y aplicación delprincipio de distinción entre objetivos militares y bienes de carácter civil, Valencia, Tirant Monografías, 2000, 439 pp.
VEUTHEY Michel, Guérilla et droit humanitaire, Geneva, ICRC, 1983, 451 pp.
WARD Christopher, “Distinction: the Application of the Additional Protocols in the Theatre of War”, in Asia-Pacific Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law, Vol. 2 (2006), 2007, pp. 36-45
WENGER Andreas & MASON Simon J. A., “The Civilianization of Armed Conflict: Trends and Implications”, in IRRC, Vol. 90, No. 872, December 2008, pp. 835-852

Further reading:

DOSWALD-BECK Louise, “The Value of the Geneva Protocols for the Protection of Civilians”, in MEYER Michael (ed.), Armed conflict and the New Law: Aspects of the 1977 Geneva Protocols and the 1981 Weapons Conventions, London, 1989, pp. 137-172.

GEHRING Robert W., “Protection of Civilian Infrastructures”, in Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 42/2, 1978, pp. 86-139.

OBRADOVIC Konstantin, “La protection de la population civile dans les conflits armés internationaux”, in CASSESE Antonio (ed.), The New Humanitarian Law of Armed Conflict, Naples, Editoriale Scientifica, Vol. I, 1979, pp. 128-160.

SALAHI Reem, “Israel’s War Crimes: a First Hand Account of Israel’s Attacks on Palestinian Civilians and Civilian Infrastructure”, in Rutgers Law Record, Vol. 36, 2009, pp. 201-223.

SAUSSURE Hamilton de, “Belligerent Air Operations and the 1977 Geneva Protocol I”, in Annals of Air and Space Law, Vol. 1, 1976, pp. 33-47.

SPAIGHT James M., Air Power and War Rights, London, Longmans, 1947, 523 pp.

URBINA Julio Jorge, Protección de las víctimas de los conflictos armados, Naciones Unidas y derecho internacional humanitario: desarrollo y aplicación del principio de distinción entre objetivos militares y bienes de carácter civil, Valencia, Tirant Monografías, 2000, 439 pp.