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Civilian casualties

Monument to commemorate 29 executed members of the Dutch resistance movement, October 24, 1944. Statue made by Jan Havermans
Casualties of a mass panic during a June 1941 Japanese bombing of Chongqing.[1] More than 5000 civilians died during the first two days of air raids in 1939

Civilian casualties is a military term describing civilians killed, injured, or imprisoned by military personnel or combatants. Civilian casualties can be associated with the outcome of any form of action regardless of whether civilians were targeted directly or not.


  • Type of action 1
    • Military action 1.1
    • Atrocities 1.2
  • International law 2
  • Ethics 3
    • Refugees 3.1
  • Civilian casualty ratio 4
  • Collateral damage 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8

Type of action

Military action

Civilian casualties occurs as a result of military actions such as the widespread use of chemical weapons by all major belligerents during the First World War. Though officers on both sides of the conflict maintained that the use of chemical weapons was only limited on the battlefield, strong winds frequently blew the poison gases on nearby civilian towns. Since civilians had neither warning systems nor access to effective gas masks, they were at high risk of being exposed to deadly poison gas effects. An estimated 100,000-260,000 civilians were either killed or wounded by chemical weapons during the First World War and tens of thousands of more (along with military personnel) died from scarring of the lungs, skin damage, and cerebral damage in the years after the conflict ended. In the year 1920 alone, over 40,000 civilians and 20,000 military personnel died from the chemical weapons effects.[2][3]

During World War II, every country participating in the conflict carried out strategic air raids against enemy cities in the hope to coerce enemy governments into surrender by not just destroying military and industrial facilities but also demoralizing enemy civilians, hoping to convince that their governments were useless in protecting them from air raids. Examples include the Blitz by the German Luftwaffe which killed at least 40,000 British civilians, the bombing of Hamburg during the last week of July 1943 by the British RAF killed 42,600 German civilians almost the same number as the entire Blitz, and the often-criticized bombing of Dresden on February 13–15, 1945, also by the British RAF killed 25,000 German civilians. The U.S. Army Air Forces also carried out destructive air raids against enemy cities on its own, using incendiary bombs to burn down Japanese cities such as the Operation Meetinghouse bombing of Tokyo (the most deadliest single raid in military aviation history), as well as the raids on Kobe, Osaka, Nagoya, and 64 others. Later, it dropped nuclear weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, destroying military bases as well as industries in a matter of seconds within a radius that stretched for more than 1 mile (1.6 kilometers), while killing roughly 129,000–246,000 people, primarily civilians, wounding about the same number, and leaving millions homeless.[4]


Civilian casualties therefore include victims of atrocities such as the Nanking Massacre committed on a civilian population where hundreds of thousands of men were slaughtered, while girls and women ages ranging from 10 to 70 were systematically raped and/or killed by Japanese soldiers in 1937 during the Second Sino-Japanese War. During the Holocaust in World War II, more than 11 million civilians and prisoners of war were killed in the death camps as part of Hitler's genocidal policy to eradicate certain ethnic groups off the face of the earth that were not deemed to fit within the "Aryan Race". The My Lai Massacre which involved the killing of hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians by United States soldiers in 1968 during the Vietnam War and the Batang Kali massacre which involved the killing of 24 unarmed villagers by United Kingdom soldiers in 1948 during the Malayan Emergency are also examples.

Modern times also entails atrocities. The Halabja chemical attack also known as the Halabja Massacre or Bloody Friday,[5] was a genocidal massacre against the Kurdish people that took place on March 16, 1988, during the closing days of the Iran–Iraq War in the Kurdish city of Halabja in Southern Kurdistan, as part of the Al-Anfal campaign in northern Iraq, as well as part of the Iraqi attempt to repel the Iranian Operation Zafar 7. The Srebrenica massacre, also known as the Srebrenica genocide[6][7][8][9] (Bosnian: Masakar u Srebrenici; Genocid u Srebrenici), was the genocidal[10][11][12] killing, in July 1995, of more than 8,000[13][14][15][16][17] Muslim Bosniaks, mainly men and boys, in and around the town of Srebrenica during the Bosnian War.

International law

Following the Second World War, a series of treaties governing the laws of war were adopted starting in 1949. These Geneva Conventions would come into force, in no small part, because of a general reaction against the practices of the Second World War. Although the Fourth Geneva Convention attempted to erect some legal defenses for civilians in time of war, the bulk of the Fourth Convention devoted to explicating civilian rights in occupied territories, and no explicit attention is paid to the problems of bombardment and the hazardous effects in the combat-zone.[18]

In 1977, Protocol I was adopted as an amendment to the Geneva Conventions, prohibiting the deliberate or indiscriminate attack of civilians and civilian objects in the war-zone and the attacking force must take precautions and steps to spare the lives of civilians and civilian objects as possible.[19] Although ratified by 173 countries, the only countries that are currently not signatories to Protocol I are the United States, Israel, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Turkey.[20]

The Rome Statute defines that "intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population" to be illegal, but only came into effect on July 1, 2002 and has not been ratified by every country.[21]


Many modern nations' views on the ethics of civilian casualties align with the Just War theory, which advocates a system of proportionality. An act of war is deemed proportional in Just War theory if the overall destruction expected from the use of force is outweighed by the projected good to be achieved.[22] This view is a war-adapted version of utilitarianism, the moral system which advocates that the morally correct action is the one that does the most good.

However, moral philosophers often contest this approach to war. Such theorists advocate absolutism, which holds there are various ethical rules that are, as the name implies, absolute. One such rule is that non-combatants cannot be attacked because they are, by definition, not partaking in combat; to attack non-combatants anyway, regardless of the expected outcome, is to deny them agency. Thus, by the absolutist view, only enemy combatants can be attacked. The philosopher Thomas Nagel advocates this abolutist rule in his essay [23]War and Massacre.

Finally, the approach of pacifism is the belief that war of any kind is morally unjust. Pacifists sometimes extend humanitarian concern not just to enemy civilians but also to enemy combatants, especially conscripts.[24]


The laws of war have changed over the course of history, and international protocols like the Fourth Geneva Convention explicitly provide legal protections to civilians in territories occupied by a hostile belligerent during and after an international armed conflict. The 1951 Refugee convention has also given protection to people who have a well founded fear of persecution.

Some researchers have included refugees and internally displaced persons in their definition of "civilian casualty".[25][26]

Civilian casualty ratio

The civilian casualty ratio in an armed conflict is the ratio of civilian casualties to combatant casualties or total casualties. The measurement can apply either to casualties inflicted by a particular belligerent or to casualties in the conflict as a whole.

The ratio of ten civilian casualties for every combatant is a frequently-cited, but disputed figure.[27]

Collateral damage

Collateral damage is defined as unavoidable or accidental killing or injury of non-combatants or unavoidable or accidental destruction of non-combatant property caused by attacks on legitimate military targets during a war.

See also


  1. ^ Herbert Bix, Hirohito and the making of modern Japan, 2001, p. 364
  2. ^ L. F. Haber (February 20, 1986). The Poisonous Cloud: Chemical Warfare in the First World War.  
  3. ^ Joel A. Vilensky (February 20, 1986). Dew of Death: The Story of Lewisite, America's World War I Weapon of Mass.  
  4. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions #1".  
  5. ^
  6. ^ "European Parliament resolution of 15 January 2009 on Srebrenica". European Parliament. Retrieved 10 August 2009. 
  7. ^ """Office of the High Representative – "Decision Enacting the Law on the Center for the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide. Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Retrieved 10 August 2009. 
  8. ^ "Youth Initiative for Human Rights in Serbia letter to the Serbian President to commemorate the Srebrenica genocide". Youth Initiative for Human Rights in Serbia. Retrieved 10 August 2009. 
  9. ^ Mike Corder (20 August 2006). "Srebrenica Genocide Trial to Restart". The Washington Post. Retrieved 26 October 2010. 
  10. ^ "International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY)" (PDF). Retrieved 10 July 2015. 
  11. ^ "The New York Times". 3 August 2001. Retrieved 10 July 2015. 
  12. ^ "The International Court of Justice" (PDF). Retrieved 10 July 2015. 
  13. ^ Potocari Memorial Center Preliminary List of Missing Persons from Srebrenica '95 [10]
  14. ^ "ICTY: The Conflicts". The  
  15. ^ Kirsten Nakjavani Bookmiller (2008). The United Nations. Infobase Publishing. Retrieved 4 August 2013. , p. 81.
  16. ^ Christopher Paul, Colin P. Clarke, Beth Grill (2010). Victory Has a Thousand Fathers: Sources of Success in Counterinsurgency. Rand Corporation. Retrieved 4 August 2013. , p. 25.
  17. ^ Simons, Marlise (31 May 2011). "Mladic Arrives in The Hague".  
  18. ^ Douglas P. Lackey (January 1, 1984). Moral Principles and Nuclear Weapons.  
  19. ^ "Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977". The American National Red Cross. 
  20. ^ "Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977". International Committee of the Red Cross. 
  21. ^ Rome Statute
  22. ^
  23. ^ "Nagel - War and Massacre". 
  24. ^ "Manifesto against Conscription and the Military System". 
  25. ^ Ahlstrom, C. and K.-A. Nordquist (1991). "Casualties of conflict: report for the world campaign for the protection of victims of war." Uppsala, Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University.
  26. ^ Claire Garbett (9 January 2015). The Concept of the Civilian: Legal Recognition, Adjudication and the Trials of International Criminal Justice. Routledge.  
  27. ^ 52(3): 115-136.SurvivalRoberts, A. (2010). "Lives and Statistics: Are 90% of war victims civilians?"

Further reading

  • Counting Civilian Casualties: An Introduction to Recording and Estimating Non-military Deaths in Conflict.
  • Twentieth Century Atlas - Death Tolls [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18]
  • Selected Death Tolls for Wars, Massacres and Atrocities Before the 20th Century
  • The world's worst massacres, by Greg Brecht. Fall, 1987. Whole Earth Review.
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