While some militaries have worked to reduce civilian casualties in armed conflict, greater attention should be paid to determinations of “hostile intent.” Troops have the right to fire in self-defense if someone demonstrates hostile intent, i.e., a “threat of imminent use of force,” but misidentifications of such intent have endangered civilians. Recent US operations, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq, show that militaries could improve civilian protection without jeopardizing troops’ lives by clarifying the rule and improving implementation.

Targeted at legal experts and humanitarian practitioners seeking an advanced understanding of rules related to civilian protection in armed conflict, this expert briefing featured a presentation by Bonnie Docherty from Harvard Law School on recent research carried out on the issue of hostile intent. The session aimed to:

  • Summarize existing challenges and risks related to determinations of hostile intent
  • Examine ways to sharpen the rule of hostile intent
  • Identify implementation tools to avoid the inaccurate determinations of hostile intent
  • Discuss lessons learned from recent military operations, notably Afghanistan and Iraq


Bonnie Docherty Bonnie Docherty is a Lecturer on Law and Senior Clinical Instructor at Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. She is an expert on disarmament and international humanitarian law, particularly involving civilian protection during armed conflict. Since 2001, she has played an active role, as both lawyer and field researcher, in the campaign against cluster munitions. More recently, she has advocated for a ban on fully autonomous weapons and stronger regulation of incendiary weapons. She has investigated the conduct of war and civilian casualties in several countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Gaza, Libya, and Ukraine. She has also published reports on US military training and the rules for distinguishing combatants from civilians.

Event host

Angharad Laing Angharad Laing Executive Director, International Association of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP)

Recordings and interview

Session recording (YouTube - faster loading time)

Session recording (Adobe Connect - higher quality)

Session recording (audio podcast)

Recommended resources

Further reading mentioned during the event:

  • LCDR David H. Lee,"Operational Law Handbook," International and Operational Law Department  of The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, 2015.

Discussion document

Target audience and event access

The Expert Briefings specifically target legal experts and humanitarian practitioners seeking an advanced legal knowledge.