Obviously, wars will result in collateral damage…but the question is, how to distinguish collateral damage from a war crime?
Collateral damage is damage to humans, animals and other things different to the intended target.
A war crime is an action carried out during the conduct of a war that violates accepted international rules of war.
What are ‘accepted international rules of war’?
The Geneva Conventions are the principle rules. The first Geneva Convention was developed in 1864. It called on the warring parties to respect the right of medical personnel assisting soldiers in the field. The 1949 Conventions, which are the current rules, were a response to the atrocities of WW2. The four conventions protect combatants in the field, combatants at sea, prisoners of war and civilians. The protection for civilians includes the provision of humanitarian aid to noncombatants and wounded combatants.
But this is a vague proposition…’protecting’ civilians, to use no more force than is ‘necessary’, raises the question of ‘how many’ civilians should be protected (and how)? One theory is that the difference between collateral damage and a war crime might break down into differences in political values. What your personal values are…determines definitions. This is just a theory, without a hard data set to substantiate it, but it's a good starting point for discussion.
Those on the left-liberal side of the political spectrum, would have a strict definition of a war crime to include ANY type of collateral damage, if it was foreseeable. This would include deaths of innocents under economic sanctions as well as in wartime. Often it is argued on the liberal side, that the ends are not justified by the means.
Those more in the middle of the political spectrum, would allow for a moderate amount of foreseeable civilian deaths and damage, as long as it was not perceived of as excessive. But what is ‘excessive’ is left up to personal opinion. One person may think that 20 innocent deaths are excessive, others would put it at 200. Again, there are not set rules anywhere to make that determination.
Those on the right side of the political spectrum, denounce anyone who is close to an attack as either being used by the designated enemy as a shield, or in collusion with them, thus justifying an indeterminate number of innocent deaths.
One thing is clear. This as students pointed out this week, is an issue of morality. There is a profound lack of consensus on the morality of war and this is reflected in the vagueness we see in international law regarding collateral damage.