Lost in debate over whether the Obama administration had the right to carry out the extra-legal execution of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Yemini cleric and al-Qaeda member, is who pulled the trigger? It is not a minor question, and it lies at the heart of the 1907 Hague Convention, the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and the 1977 additions to the ‘49 agreement: civilians cannot engage in war.
In the main, laws of war focus on the protection of civilians. For instance, Article 48, the “Basic Rule” of Part IV of the 1977 Geneva Conventions, states, “In order to ensure respect for and protection of civilian populations and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between civilian populations and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.”
What follows in the 1977 Conventions are nine articles specifying what the general rule means, ranging from prohibitions against attacking power plants and water sources and spreading “terror among civilian populations” to destroying the “natural environment.” There are many civilian-related sections in other parts of the Conventions, but the 10 articles that make up Chapter I, Section I, Part IV on “Civilian Population” are the clearest guidelines about what is allowed when civilians are caught up in war.