International law generally prohibits military forces from intentionally targeting civilians; this is the principle of distinction. In contrast, unintended collateral damage is permissible unless the anticipated civilian deaths outweigh the expected military advantage of the strike; this is the principle of proportionality. These cardinal targeting rules of international humanitarian law are generally assumed by military lawyers to be relatively well settled. However, recent international tribunals applying this law in a string of little-noticed decisions have completely upended this understanding. Armed with criminal law principles from their own domestic systems, often civil law jurisdictions, prosecutors, judges and even scholars have progressively redefined what it means to “intentionally” target a civilian population. In particular, these accounts rely on the civil law notion of dolus eventualis, a mental state akin to common law recklessness that differs in at least one crucial respect: it classifies risk-taking behavior as a species of intent.
This problem represents a clash of legal cultures. International lawyers trained in civil law jurisdictions are nonplussed by this development, while the Anglo-American literature on targeting has all-but-ignored this conflict. But when told of these decisions, U.S. military lawyers view this “reinterpretation” of intent as conflating the principles of distinction and proportionality. If a military commander anticipates that attacking a building may result in civilian casualties, why bother analyzing whether the collateral damage is proportional? Under the dolus eventualis view, the commander is already guilty of violating the principle of distinction. The following Article voices skepticism about this vanguard application of dolus eventualis to the law of targeting, in particular by noting that dolus eventualis was excluded by the framers of the Rome Statute and was nowhere considered by negotiators of Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Convention. Finally and most importantly, a dolus eventualis-inspired law of targeting undermines the Doctrine of Double Effect, the principle of moral theology on which the collateral damage rule rests. At stake is nothing less than the moral and legal distinction between terrorists who deliberately kill civilians and lawful combatants who foresee collateral damage.
The essay was prompted by a multi-platform blog debate from last year. For those interested in reading the old posts that sparked this debate, they can be here (Bobby Chesney), here (Kevin Heller), here (Jens Ohlin), here (Dapo Akande), and here (Heller again).