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Proportionality and Civilian Casualties in Asymmetrical Armed Conflicts: An Interdisciplinary Approach

KAS Israel and the Israel Democracy Institute co-host an international conference on “Proportionality and Civilian Casualties in Asymmetrical Armed Conflicts: An Interdisciplinary Approach” scheduled to take place in Jerusalem from May 30-31, 2016.


Almost all states involved in armed conflicts recognize the principle of proportionality as a legal and ethical restraint on their military activities. An attacking party cannot justify collateral damage to civilians if civilian casualties exceed the concrete military advantage. However, the precise meaning of this principle in the context of modern asymmetrical conflict is frequently disputed. Debates exist over many issues, for example: the degree to which force-protection measures can justify extensive collateral damage; the obligation to employ accurate but expensive weaponry; the impact of using voluntary and non-voluntary human shields. The exact considerations which should be taken into account are also in disagreement: what exactly is a military advantage, and what does "excessive" mean?

Controversy is especially rife with regards to asymmetrical conflicts, in which states, among them many liberal democracies, are involved in an armed conflict against non-state actors, such as terrorist organizations. In these situations, questions relating to the correct interpretation and effective implementation of the principles of proportionality and civilian deaths have arisen in connection with targeted killings and military operations in civilian areas.

The purpose of the conference is to evaluate the applicability and parameters of the principle of proportionality with regards to liberal states involved in asymmetric conflicts. We propose that an understanding of the proportionality principle cannot be fully understood by looking at it exclusively through a legal lens. The principle of proportionality is at once a philosophical principle, a political necessity, and a restraint on military operations. It is also a theoretical concept as well as a practical tool. As a result, understanding the reasoning, effect and actual parameters of the proportionality principle requires a multi-disciplinary discussion between scholars from varying academic fields (e.g. law, philosophy, history, diplomacy, and political science) as well as between academics and practitioners: military commanders, representatives of NGO's and civilians.

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Israel Democracy Institute, Jerusalem


Proportionality in Asymmetrical Warfare: Internatinal round table discussion
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Daliah Marhöfer