Feigning civilian or noncombatant status to deceive the enemy is a violation of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 29 at a U.S. military roadblock near Najaf, an Iraqi noncommissioned officer reportedly posing as a taxi driver detonated a car bomb that killed him and four U.S. soldiers. Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said at a Baghdad news conference that such attacks would become “routine military policy.”
International law prohibits attacking, killing, injuring, capturing or deceiving the enemy by resorting to what is called perfidy. A perfidious attack is one launched by combatants who have led opposing forces to believe that the attackers are really noncombatants. Acts of perfidy include pretending to be a civilian (who cannot be attacked) or feigning surrender (surrendering soldiers also cannot be attacked) so that opposing forces will let down their guard at the moment of attack. Other examples include feigning protective status by the misuse of emblems of the United Nations or the red cross and red crescent.
Perfidy poses particular dangers because it blurs the distinction between enemy soldiers, who are a valid target, and civilians and other noncombatants, who are not. Soldiers fearful of perfidious attacks are more likely to fire upon civilians and surrendering soldiers, however unlawfully.
Attacks carried out by openly armed belligerents in civilian clothes, with no attempt to feign civilian status, do not constitute perfidy. Suicidal attacks by undisguised military forces, exemplified by Japanese kamikaze attacks during World War II, are not a violation of the laws of war.
Perfidy is distinguished from ruses of war, such as mock operations, misinformation, surprises, ambushes, or the use of camouflage or decoy. Ruses are permissible acts of warfare intended to trick the enemy; they do not violate international law to the extent that they do not depend on taking advantage of an enemy’s willingness to abide by the law protecting noncombatants