US Airstrike on ISIL in Syria. Screenshot from CenCom Video
Whether used for advocacy or justice, documentation of attacks will be much more effective if it is strictly factual and uses uniform terminology and standards. Military determinations of legitimate targets, as well as international legal determinations of whether attacks are lawful, follow strict principles that should be reflected in reporting. Therefore, if reporting is to be used as a reliable source that allows comparison, analysis, or advocacy, use of standard measurements and vocabulary is essential.
The questions below are applicable to any airstrikes undertaken by any party in any conflict.
- What are the physical details of the attack?
What was the exact time and location of the strike? Which exact buildings/structures were hit, and what was their function/type? What buildings were in the immediate surrounds (exact buildings/structures and their function/type)? How close/far away from each other were the buildings/structures?
This information will help determine whether the objective was a “military objective,” which is required by international law. Military objectives are “personnel and objects that are making an effective contribution to military action and whose destruction, capture, or neutralization offers a definite military advantage.” Valid military objectives are determined based on their nature, location, purpose, or use. A party cannot directly attack non-military objectives, although indirect damage to civilians and/or civilian objects is not prohibited as long as the direct attack was on a military objective.
- Were the persons hit in the attack civilians or fighters/members of armed groups?
Were the persons armed, or otherwise involved with fighting? Were they affiliated with or working with armed groups? Or, were they members of local police forces?
A person does NOT have protected status as a civilian if he/she is directly participating in the conflict. Thus, members of armed groups and persons who have taken up fighting in the war are NOT protected as civilians. However, persons who carry a gun for protection but are not participating in the armed conflict are protected as civilians, as are armed persons who ONLY provide local policing services but do not participate in the armed conflict. Women, children, and the elderly are usually – but NOT NECESSARILY – civilians. Persons who perform a normal job during the day but participate in armed groups at night are NOT protected as civilians and targets of attack.
This information will help determine whether the principle of distinction was applied. Under international law, attacking parties must distinguish between combatants and civilians, and only target combatants or other military objectives. Civilians and civilian objects are protected from attack, but military objectives and persons who have joined armed groups are not. Some civilian casualties are inevitable during attacks on military targets, but civilians should never be the targets of an attack. An attack that is made without distinction is called an “indiscriminate attack.”
- What was the apparent main target of the attack, and why?
Which buildings/structures (described in answer to Question 1 above) were at the center of the strike, or hit most directly? What was the type and extent of the damage to these buildings/structures? Despite or in addition to the normal function/type of these buildings/structures, did they have any conflict-related uses or functions? For examples, were members of armed groups using them for any purposes? If so, which purposes, when and with what regularity, and how was this manifested or hidden (i.e., outward signs or public knowledge of use for such purposes)?
This information will also help determine whether distinction was applied. Attacks must be directed at SPECIFIC military objectives. Valid military objectives are determined based on their nature, location, purpose, or use. Objects that are normally civilian lose protection from attack when and for such time as they are military objectives, i.e., they are being used for non-civilian purposes. This includes places of worship, homes, and schools. However, attackers must make a careful assessment before attacking and take all feasible precautions, especially verification that the objects of attack are truly military objectives.
- What was the damage to the surrounding area, and of what type and extent?
What types of structures/buildings were in the surrounding area, and what were their functions? Were they in use at the time of attack, and how? What type of area was the vicinity of the attack (for example, agricultural, residential, commercial)? Was it a densely populated area at the time of the attack?
- What are the exact details on casualties (fatalities and injuries)?
What is the real number of casualties – i.e., how many were actually killed? How many were actually injured? How were these casualty figures collected and confirmed (for example, by medical personnel, in person, name of persons/groups reporting, etc.)? What were the ages of each casualty? What types of injuries did each person suffer?
The information in response to questions 4 and 5, in combination with other information, could help illuminate whether the attackers abided by the principle of proportionality. This principle prohibits attacks which may be expected to cause injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects that would be excessive in relation to the expected military advantage resulting from the attack. It could also help show whether parties (including the armed groups) took feasible precautions to protect civilians from the effects of attacks.
- What were the means of attack? What were other circumstances of the attack?
What type of weapons/bombs were used? How were they deployed (for example, types of aircraft, length and style of attack)? What were their effects (i.e., blast radius, depth, etc.)? Did they have any aftereffects or cause lingering danger? What was the sequence of events during the attack?
This information will also help determine whether the attack was indiscriminate, which is prohibited. Attacks are indiscriminate if they employ weapons or means of attack that make distinction impossible. In other words, attacks are illegal if they use weapons or types of attacks whose effects (a) CANNOT be directed at a specific military objective or (b) CANNOT be limited to minimize civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects. Examples would be cluster bombs or barrel bombs, in contrast to guided missiles. Attacks by bombardment are also prohibited. The attacker must also choose means and methods of warfare with a view to minimizing civilian deaths & injury and damage to civilian objects.
- Did the attack damage any cultural property, dangerous works/installations, or the natural environment?
Were any historical or religious sites, or buildings dedicated to art, science, or education, damaged in the attack? What type and extent of damage? Were these being used for such purposes at the time of the attack? Were they being used for any other purposes, including by armed groups? Did the attack damage any installations such as dams, dykes, or electrical generating stations? Did the attack cause damage to the natural environment? If so, how and to what extent?
Parties to a conflict must take special care to avoid damaging cultural property unless it is a military objective, and also avoid releasing dangerous forces that could harm civilians. Attackers should also take feasible precautions to minimize damage the natural environment, and are prohibited from using weapons intended or expected to cause widespread, long-term, severe damage to the natural environment.