Sense and Nonsense about Disproportionate Force

As the war in Lebanon continues, the term “disproportionate force” is being bandied about as if some crystal clear principle of international law lay behind it, telling us when force is disproportionate and why it is illegal. But civilian deaths as a result of military combat are not enough to say that “disproportionate force” has been used. Nor has that standard, whatever it is, been met if more children die on one side than the other. So what, then, does “disproportionate force” mean, and what is its place in the law of war?

Let’s go back to basics. In the domestic law of self‑defense, the use of force must always be both necessary and proportionate to the interest being protected. A good example is whether a storeowner may shoot looters who are escaping with his goods. If there is no other way to stop the thieves, the use of force is necessary.

But is it proportional? That depends on whether the cost to the looters of being shot so clearly outweighs the value of the stolen goods that the storeowner should do nothing, at least at the moment. He always has recourse to the police and the possibility that they might recover the goods. In other words, force becomes disproportionate when the costs of using it are too high.

To continue reading, please log in or enter your email address.

Registration is quick and easy and requires only your email address. If you already have an account with us, please log in. Or subscribe now for unlimited access.


Log in;
  1. China corruption Isaac Lawrence/Getty Images

    The Next Battle in China’s War on Corruption

    • Chinese President Xi Jinping knows well the threat that corruption poses to the authority of the Communist Party of China and the state it controls. 
    • But moving beyond Xi's anti-corruption purge to build robust and lasting anti-graft institutions will not be easy, owing to enduring opportunities for bureaucratic capture.
  2. Italy unemployed demonstration SalvatoreEsposito/Barcroftimages / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

    Putting Europe’s Long-Term Unemployed Back to Work

    Across the European Union, millions of people who are willing and able to work have been unemployed for a year or longer, at great cost to social cohesion and political stability. If the EU is serious about stopping the rise of populism, it will need to do more to ensure that labor markets are working for everyone.

  3. Latin America market Federico Parra/Getty Images

    A Belt and Road for the Americas?

    In a time of global uncertainty, a vision of “made in the Americas” prosperity provides a unifying agenda for the continent. If implemented, the US could reassert its historical leadership among a group of countries that share its fundamental values, as well as an interest in inclusive economic growth and rising living standards.

  4. Startup office Mladlen Antonov/Getty Images

    How Best to Promote Research and Development

    Clearly, there is something appealing about a start-up-based innovation strategy: it feels democratic, accessible, and so California. But it is definitely not the only way to boost research and development, or even the main way, and it is certainly not the way most major innovations in the US came about during the twentieth century.

  5. Trump Trade speech Bill Pugliano/Getty Images .

    Preparing for the Trump Trade Wars

    In the first 11 months of his presidency, Donald Trump has failed to back up his words – or tweets – with action on a variety of fronts. But the rest of the world's governments, and particularly those in Asia and Europe, would be mistaken to assume that he won't follow through on his promised "America First" trade agenda.