Insufficient knowledge in Kunduz: the precautionary principle and international humanitarian law

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The targeting protocols applied by forces during armed conflict are some of the most secretive documents held by any military. However, their role in applying principles of international humanitarian law (IHL) means that they are key to understanding their development. This piece is primarily concerned with practical and operational application of the precautionary principle under IHL; how much knowledge is sufficient to carry out an attack lawfully during modern armed conflict. In order to establish if a standard has developed with the increase in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technology, this piece uses the framework of an investigation into an incident in Kunduz, Afghanistan in 2009. I explore the difficulties of obtaining information post-incident, the differential standards expected by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Bundesgerichtshof (German Federal Court of Justice), and the manner in which these can be evaluated through the principles of proportionality, distinction and precautions in attack. The piece looks at the interrelated issues raised by the Rules of Engagement and Tactical Directives, as well as the problems surrounding the clarity of intelligence available. I argue that this case is demonstrative of the failings inherent in the application and practical use of the precautionary principle outlined by IHL. The lack of transparency afforded in, and after, incidents of this nature prevents objective analysis and so the development of IHL can be obfuscated. I conclude that the lack of information following incidents of this kind confuses any intelligence standard that exists under IHL.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)53–79
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of Conflict and Security Law
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 20 Jan 2020


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