|By Erich Rathfelder
It was with worried expressions that the people of Omis, a small coastal town on the Adriatic, watched the Cretina River. In that bitter winter of 1993, it seemed as if death and destruction could come roaring down from the river at any time. The citizens of Omis, as well as villagers in the surrounding area, held their collective breath.
The danger of a deluge came from the Peruca Dam, a huge edifice that lay some forty kilometers inland, and that, before the breakup of Yugoslavia, had been part of the country’s second biggest hydroelectric complex. Serb forces had controlled it since the beginning of the Croatian War in 1991. Now, Croatian forces were massing for an attack on Peruca and the 641 million cubic meters of water behind the dam represented mortal danger to civilians in the town below.
On January 28, Serb troops had detonated between thirty and thirty-seven tons of explosives in different parts of the dam. Peruca had been shaken to its foundations, but it seemed to be holding. Had its walls been breached, the mass of water would have raced in a giant wave down the river canyon, crushing the villages downriver and completely wiping out Omis.
Fortunately for the people of Omis, a Croatian counterattack was successful. Croatian military engineers reached the dam, opened its sluice gates, and allowed the water level to fall and the pressure to abate. Their action, and that of Capt. Mark Gray, a British officer serving with the United Nations as a military observer, probably saved the lives of between twenty thousand and thirty thousand people. In October 1992, while the Serbs still held Peruca, Gray, on his own initiative, opened one of the sluice gates following heavy rains, thus lowering the water level by six meters.
The Serb military actions were subject to two fundamental principles governing the impact of armed conflict on civilians as well as special rules that apply to “dangerous forces.” First, civilians may not be made the direct object of attack. If the aim of the attack on the dam was to wipe out the civilians of Omis it was a grave breach. If it was to cause them under threat of destruction to abandon the area for reasons not strictly related to military necessity or their safety, then the attack was a serious violation.
Even if the attack upon the dam was not undertaken in order to affect civilians directly, if the resulting damage to civilians and civilian objects was not justified by military necessity, and would have been disproportionate to the concrete military advantages gained through it, the attack would also be a violation of the laws of armed conflict.
In addition, a special set of rules apply in this case.
According to Article 56 of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, “works or installations containing dangerous forces, namely dams, dikes and nuclear electrical generating stations, shall not be made the object of attack, even when these objects are military objectives, if such attack may cause the release of dangerous forces and consequent severe losses among the civilian population.”
On the face of things, it would therefore appear that what the Serbs did was a violation of the laws of armed conflict. However, as with so many prohibitions in international humanitarian law, Article 56 of Protocol I is subject to important caveats. In other words, even so seemingly gross a violation as detonating explosives in a dam that causes severe losses among civilians is not always forbidden to soldiers.
Traditionally, the laws and customs of war allow the destruction of dams and dikes to stop an enemy’s advance. And Article 56 does specify three exceptions to the prohibition against attacking or destroying works or installations containing dangerous forces. Where dams or dikes are concerned, the exception occurs when the installation is used for “other than its normal function and in regular, significant and direct support of military operations and if such attack is the only feasible way to terminate such support.”
In other words, the article places obligations not only upon attacking forces but also defenders who might decide to utilize those installations or the nearby areas for “regular, significant, and direct” support of military operations.
The exceptions to the prohibition would appear not to apply in this instance, since the Croatian forces did not hold the dam and could not be said to have been using it as a military installation. The Serbs also could not claim that destroying the dam allowed them to fend off the Croatian offensive. It would appear, rather, that the Serb attacks upon the dam were a clear violation of the obligation for the Serbs to take “all practical precautions… to avoid the release of dangerous forces.”
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