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A Practical Perspective on Attacking Armed Groups

Updated: May 12, 2020

Author: Brigadier General R. Patrick Huston


It has been a tremendous honor both to address the 2nd Israeli Defense Forces Conference on the Law of Armed Conflict and to provide this Article. My goal is to provide more detail on my views regarding organized armed groups 1 under International Humanitarian Law, which I will refer to as the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC). While I am not an academic, I hope to provide the practical perspective that comes from implementing LOAC rules during real- world operations. My perspective also comes from recognizing the need to apply these rules across a broad spectrum of operations: in the air, on the ground, at sea, in both urban and remote areas, and in future conflicts that might not resemble today’s fight.

Let me begin by emphasizing that the United States is absolutely committed to complying with the LOAC during all military operations. The United States has devoted more time, training, and personnel to this vital task than any other nation in the history of warfare. To help our commanders comply with the LOAC, I typically apply a three-part framework when I provide legal advice on a proposal to attack any person.

In this Article, I will describe the three questions I ask and highlight some of the practical problems that can arise when we answer each of the three questions. After that, I will move on to a discussion of how organized armed groups are treated under the LOAC, and how that treatment is—and should remain—different from how civilians are treated when they directly participate in hostilities. I consider this distinction to be the most important part of the discussion about targeting persons in today’s conflicts, but I note that this key concept is sometimes misunderstood or misapplied, so it plays a prominent role in my presentation.


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