In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Targeting in International Humanitarian Law

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Specialized Publications
  • International Treaties
  • Manuals
  • Case Law
  • Cyber Targeting
  • Automated and Autonomous Weapons and Targeting

International Law Targeting in International Humanitarian Law
Nicholas Tsagourias
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0142


The law of targeting contains rules concerning which persons, places, and objects can be attacked in the course of an armed conflict in order to attain the underlying strategic, operational, or tactical objectives pursued by the belligerents. The law of targeting covers the whole targeting process: the selection of targets, their prioritization, planning, execution, and post-attack assessment. In addition to identifying lawful targets, the law of targeting is also concerned with what type of weapons and methods can be used for such attacks as well as with the measures belligerents should take to ensure the protection of specific groups of people and objects. Decisions on targeting involve complex operational, strategic, tactical, legal, ethical, and political assessments and need to be flexible to respond to changing circumstances. Because targeting is a dynamic process, the judgment of the commander is critical.

General Overviews

General works on international humanitarian law deal with the law of targeting and its attendant principles. D’Aspremont and De Hemptinne 2012 provides an overview of the law applicable to armed conflicts with targeting being considered under the principle of distinction, Fleck 2013 provides commentaries by scholars and practitioners on a wide range of topics relating to armed conflict including targeting whereas Clapham and Gaeta 2014 is a collection of essays on the multiple legal regimes that apply to armed conflicts. Dinstein 2010 analyses military necessity in the context of targeting, as well as the categories of weapons that according to international law can be used in an armed conflict. Gill and Dieter 2012 explores the law that governs targeted killings, and Green 2008 examines the International Court of Justice, ICTY, and ICTR jurisprudence on targeting. Henckaerts and Doswald-Beck 2005 identifies the customary rules applicable to armed conflict including the rules governing targeting. Cullen 2010 and Moir 2002 examine the law of targeting in the context of a non-international armed conflict, while Sivakumaran 2012 presents the relevant practice of states and nonstate actors in situations of internal conflicts.

  • Clapham, Andrew, and Paola Gaeta, eds. The Oxford Handbook of International Law in Armed Conflict. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    Contains a presentation of the multiple branches of international law that apply to an armed conflict, in addition to international humanitarian law. It analyzes key concepts of the law of targeting such as the principle of distinction, the principle of proportionality and the law governing internal armed conflicts.

  • Cullen, Anthony. The Concept of Non-international Armed Conflict in International Humanitarian Law. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511712111

    This book analyzes, among other things, the law on targeting in non-international armed conflicts, focusing mainly on the case law of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

  • D’Aspremont, Jean, and Jérôme De Hemptinne. Droit International Humanitaire. Paris: Editions A. Pedone, 2012.

    Covers all areas of humanitarian law including the principle of distinction and the conduct of hostilities.

  • Dinstein, Yoram. The Conduct of Hostilities Under the Law of International Armed Conflict. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511845246

    Presents the international law applicable to an international armed conflict and examines among others the principle of military necessity, the principle of distinction, the law relating to prohibited weapons, the law on targeting, the law on the protection of civilians and civilian objects, and the law concerning the protection of the environment.

  • Fleck, Dieter, ed. The Handbook of International Humanitarian Law. 3d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    Examines, among others, the distinction between combatants and non-combatants, and the international legal rules for the protection of civilian population and civilian objects, the wounded and sick, religious personnel and the cultural property.

  • Gill, Terry D., and Fleck Dieter, eds. The Handbook of the International Law of Military Operations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    Presents the international legal rules that apply in military operations, including the rules governing targeting and targeted killings.

  • Green, Leslie. The Contemporary Law of Armed Conflict. 3d ed. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2008.

    Offers a theoretical and practical approach to the international law of armed conflict. In terms of targeting, it explains the law on the protection of civilians and analyses the case law of the ad hoc criminal tribunals for Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Rwanda (ICTR).

  • Henckaerts, Jean-Marie, and Louise Doswald-Beck, eds. Customary International Humanitarian Law. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    A study of the rules of customary international law that apply to armed conflicts. It includes the customary rules on targeting and more specifically on distinction, proportionality, and precautions, the customary rules concerning the treatment of civilians, the use of weapons, and methods of warfare.

  • Moir, Lindsay. The Law of Internal Armed Conflict. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511495168

    Examines the international legal rules concerning the protection of civilian population in a non-international armed conflict.

  • Sivakumaran, Sandesh. The Law of Non-international Armed Conflict. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1093/law/9780199239795.001.0001

    Contains an analysis of the conventional, customary, and soft law rules governing non-international armed conflict, including targeting among others, followed by an overview of the relative practice of state and non-state actors.

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