Examining the Complexities of Proportionality in Modern Warfare : Daily News Analysis

Date : 17/11/2023

Relevance: GS Paper 2 - International Relations ( Also Relevant for GS Paper 3 - Internal Security, GS Paper 4 - Ethics)

Keywords: Nationalism, IHL, The Rome Statute , Kargil War, Principle of Proportionality in War


The concept of proportionality in warfare has been a subject of intense debate, particularly in the context of recent conflicts such as the Russia-Ukraine war and the ongoing hostilities between Hamas and Israel. This discussion extends to the broader implications of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and the role of nationalism in conflicts.

The Principle of Proportionality in War?

The principle of proportionality in war refers to the requirement that military forces must avoid attacks that are expected to cause civilian harm (deaths or injuries) or damage to civilian property that is excessive compared to the direct and concrete military advantage anticipated from the attack. This principle is not about comparing the total number of casualties on each side of a conflict to determine if the use of force was disproportionate. Instead, it focuses on individual attacks, considering both the potential harm to civilians and the intended military benefit of that specific action. Additionally, this assessment of proportionality is made before carrying out an attack, not in retrospect.

Proportionality in Warfare: A Complex Reality

The notion of proportionality in war is often contested, as seen in the responses to the Israel-Hamas conflict. Critics, including international leaders, have accused Israel of using disproportionate force against Hamas in Gaza. This criticism hinges on the belief that Israel's military actions are not only directed against Hamas but also affect the civilian population of Gaza. However, this perspective does not fully consider the complexities of urban warfare and the tactics employed by groups like Hamas, which include using civilian areas for military purposes.

The Role of Nationalism and Public Support

Wars are not fought in a vacuum; they are deeply influenced by nationalism and public support. This is evident in both the Israel-Hamas and Russia-Ukraine conflicts. In the case of Israel and Hamas, each side's actions are backed by significant public support. Similarly, the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine is a manifestation of competing nationalisms, with both sides showing little restraint in the use of force.

International Humanitarian Law and Its Limitations

International Humanitarian Law, often referred to as the law of war or the law of armed conflict, is a collection of regulations aiming to mitigate the impacts of armed conflict for humanitarian reasons. Its primary focus is on protecting individuals who are no longer participating in hostilities, including civilians, and on regulating the methods and means of warfare.

  • The Geneva Conventions of 1949
    Central to IHL are the Geneva Conventions of 1949. These conventions establish specific rules for the protection of combatants who are wounded, sick, or shipwrecked, as well as prisoners of war and civilians. They also extend protection to medical staff, military chaplains, and civilian military support personnel. The Conventions have been further expanded by the Additional Protocols of 1977, which provide additional protections for victims of armed conflicts.

  • Do You Know about the Rome Statute?

    • The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court is the treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC). It was adopted in July 1998 and entered into force in July 2002.
    • The ICC is an intergovernmental organization with 123 member states. However, India is not a member state of the ICC, and has never signed its core treaty, the ‘Rome Statute’.
    • It is a tribunal that investigates and charges individuals in cases of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression.

  • War Crimes in the Context of IHL
    War crimes are serious breaches of international humanitarian law, whether they are based on treaty obligations or customary international law, and they carry individual criminal responsibility under international law. Unlike genocide or crimes against humanity, war crimes must occur within the context of an armed conflict, be it international or non-international in nature.

The application of IHL in conflicts is a contentious issue. While IHL aims to limit the effects of armed conflict for humanitarian reasons, its enforcement is challenging due to the lack of a supra-national authority. Compliance largely depends on the goodwill of the states involved, making it difficult to ensure adherence in practice.

Understanding the Criteria for War Crimes

In the realm of international humanitarian law, determining whether an individual or a military force has committed a war crime involves adhering to three fundamental principles:

  1. Distinction: This principle prohibits attacks on targets that are likely to cause incidental civilian casualties, injuries, or damage to civilian structures, especially when such harm would be excessive compared to the anticipated direct military advantage.
  2. Proportionality: This rule forbids the use of excessive force in response to an attack. For instance, it would be disproportionate and thus illegal to bomb an entire city in retaliation for the killing of a single soldier.
  3. Precaution: Parties involved in a conflict are required to take measures to prevent or at least minimize harm to civilian populations.

The Gray Area in War Crimes Definition

The classification of certain military actions as war crimes can be ambiguous. Actions such as city raids, bombing residential areas or schools, or killing groups of civilians might not necessarily constitute war crimes if they can be justified by military necessity. However, the same actions could be deemed war crimes if they lead to unnecessary destruction, suffering, and casualties that outweigh the military benefits of the attack. Additionally, the increasing difficulty in distinguishing between civilian and military populations adds complexity to this assessment.

Historical Context: The India-Pakistan Kargil War

The Kargil War between India and Pakistan in 1999 serves as an example of the complexities of proportionality in warfare. India's response to the Pakistani incursion was seen as disproportionate, involving heavy artillery and airpower. This conflict, like many others, was driven by nationalistic fervor, further complicating the notion of proportionality.

Urban Warfare and Civilian Casualties

Urban warfare, as seen in the Israel-Hamas conflict, often results in high civilian casualties. The use of civilian areas for military operations by groups like Hamas complicates the situation. This tactic not only endangers civilians but also serves as a strategy to limit the opposing force's military actions through international pressure.

Recent Examples: Russia-Ukraine Conflict and the Fight Against IS

The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict and the United States-led operations against the Islamic State (IS) in urban environments like Raqqa and Mosul highlight the challenges of maintaining proportionality. These conflicts have resulted in significant civilian casualties, underscoring the difficulty of applying the principle of proportionality in modern warfare.


The concept of proportionality in warfare is fraught with complexities and is influenced by various factors, including nationalism, the nature of the adversary, and the tactics employed. Historical and contemporary conflicts demonstrate that while the principle of proportionality is a key aspect of IHL, its application in practice is challenging. Wars are influenced by the collective wills of the nations involved, and the realities of combat often lead to actions that may be perceived as disproportionate. Understanding these nuances is crucial in analyzing and responding to conflicts around the world.

Probable Questions for UPSC mains Exam-

  1. Evaluate the principle of proportionality within the context of International Humanitarian Law, discussing its application and challenges in recent conflicts like the Russia-Ukraine war and the Israel-Hamas hostilities. Use relevant examples to substantiate your analysis. (10 marks, 150 words)
  2. Discuss the role of nationalism and public support in shaping the conduct of modern warfare, with reference to the conflicts in Gaza, Ukraine, and the Kargil War between India and Pakistan. How do these factors influence the application of International Humanitarian Law and the perception of war crimes? (15 marks, 250 words)

Source- ORF