Late last week, the United States supported calls to create a demilitarized zone around the embattled Ukrainian Zaporizhzhia nuclear site. The State Department characterized fighting there as “dangerous and irresponsible.” What no U.S. official has yet said, however, is that the United States would not mount such an attack. There is a reason why: The United States military insists it must retain the option to attack nuclear plants in war zones if it believes it is “important” to do so.
As Victor Gilinsky and I note in a piece of ours Foreign Policy ran yesterday entitled “Protect Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant Before It’s Too Late,” the United States has staked an odd position. Unlike almost all of the world’s nations, including China and North Korea, the United States has refused to ratify either the 1949 Geneva Convention or the 1977 Protocol I that amends it.
These international legal instruments don’t preclude attacking reactors if they are dedicated to military purposes. They do, however, stand up a strong presumption against such targeting. They also warn against using these facilities as shields for military operations.
It may be difficult to get the United States to ratify these understandings, but our military can and should do more to clarify a presumption against the military targeting or exploitation of nuclear sites in war zones. This can be done in military code and in the Pentagon’s Law of War Manual. This would help get the United States on a much sounder legal and policy footing to call out Russia on its bad behavior. Truly sound military options would not be lost.
August 16, 2022
Author: Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolski
By Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolski
Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power complex, which Russia captured early in the war, has been continually in the European and U.S. headlines since Russia turned it into a military base from which it shelled Ukraine across the Dnipro River. Kyiv knows that Ukrainian forces will not fire back at a nuclear plant and risk a radiological release. It has been acutely sensitive to such risks since the horrific 1986 Chernobyl accident.
Using a surrounding population as a human shield to protect a military force operating from a civilian reactor is specifically addressed in the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Convention. Until the Russian invasion of Ukraine, no one had imagined it would be a provision that needed enforcement.
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