Nonlethal Weapons and Noncombatant Immunity: Is it Permissible to Target Noncombatants?

Journal of Military Ethics 6 (3):221-231 (2007)
The concept of noncombatant immunity prohibits the intentional targeting of noncombatants. The availability of nonlethal weapons (NLW) may weaken this prohibition, especially since using NLWs against noncombatants may, in some cases, actually save the noncombatants' lives. Given the advancement of NLWs, I argue that their probable appearance on the battlefield demands close scrutiny due to the moral problems associated with their use. In this paper, I examine four distinct cases and determine whether the use of NLWs is morally permissible. While it seems that the reduced harm caused by NLWs makes their use more acceptable, adhering to noncombatant immunity requires more than not killing noncombatants. It also requires that military forces treat noncombatants a certain way. In the cases I present, to use NLWs against noncombatants treats them as combatants and coerces them to do something against their will. While a consequentialist foundation for noncombatant immunity may permit this action, a rights-based concept of noncombatant immunity does not. I contend that only a rights-based concept of noncombatant immunity is viable, and that the availability of NLWs should not significantly alter the prohibitions prescribed by noncombatant immunity.
Keywords military ethics  nonlethal weapons  noncombatant immunity  just war theory
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