Military Age Male Signature on Steroids?
In my essay on signature strikes, I criticize (and I’m not alone) the U.S. practice of considering military-age males in an area of known terrorist activity to be lawful targets. That signature, however, pales in comparison to the possibility that the U.S. is targeting “children with potential hostile intent,” as well:
In comments which legal experts and campaigners described as “deeply troubling”, Army Lt Col Marion Carrington told the Marine Corp Times that children, as well as “military-age males”, had been identified as a potential threat because some were being used by the Taliban to assist in attacks against Afghan and coalition forces.
“It kind of opens our aperture,” said Carrington, whose unit, 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, was assisting the Afghan police. “In addition to looking for military-age males, it’s looking for children with potential hostile intent.”
In the article, headlined “Some Afghan kids aren’t bystanders”, Carrington referred to a case this year in which the Afghan national police in Kandahar province said they found children helping insurgents by carrying soda bottles full of potassium chlorate.
IHL does not limit the use of lethal force to adults, so a child can be lawfully targeted at any time if he is a member of an organized armed group (by assuming a continuous combat function in it) or for the duration of his participation if he directly participates in hostilities. That said, because it is unlikely that the U.S. tracks individual children long enough to establish their continuous combat function, the “potential hostile intent” signature is deeply problematic. “Hostile intent” does not make a civilian (adult or child) targetable; that intent must be manifested in acts that qualify as direct participation. And the word “potential” seems to indicate that the U.S. feels free to target children at times when they are not directly participating in hostilities (otherwise they would be manifesting “actual” hostile intent).
Many questions, of course, remain. It is unclear whether the U.S. is actually targeting children with “potential hostile intent.” It is also unclear how the U.S. understands “hostile intent” and “potential.” But it doesn’t take an IHL expert to know that targeting children with potential hostile intent creates significant cause for concern.