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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 January 2014

Veronika Bílková*
Lecturer at the Charles University in Prague and Researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, Czech Republic,


The paper offers the first comprehensive treatment of the applicability and regulation of belligerent reprisals in non-international armed conflicts. It introduces three approaches to the topic (‘extralegal’, ‘permissive’ and ‘restrictive’ approaches) which all enjoy some support among States and scholars. The paper shows that international humanitarian law (IHL) treaties, IHL customs and other legal sources do not make it possible to decide between these approaches, as they are either silent on the topic or allow for several interpretations. It is the assessment of extralegal considerations and of the general framework of IHL which allows us to conclude that belligerent reprisals are inapplicable in non-international armed conflicts (‘extralegal’ approach). Yet, there are signs indicating that a gradual shift toward the ‘restrictive’ approach could be under way. The paper cautions against a premature acceptance of this approach drawing attention to its limits.

Copyright © British Institute of International and Comparative Law 2014 

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3 Reprisals are defined as ‘acts of self-help on the part of the injured States, responding after an unsatisfied demand to an act contrary to international law on the part of the offending State. They would be illegal if a previous act contrary to international law had not furnished the reason for them’. Naulilaa Incident Arbitration (1928), Portugal v Germany, 8 Trib Arb Mixtes 422–5.

4 Draft Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, in UN Doc A/56/10 (2001). Official Records of the General Assembly, 56th session, Supplement No 10.

5 Kalshoven (n 1) 1.

6 See UN Doc. A/CN.4/L.682 (2006) 49; Stahn, C, ‘“Jus ad bellum”, “jus in bello” … “jus post bellum”? Rethinking the Conception of the Law of Armed Force’ (2006) 17 EJIL 5, 921–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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12 Arts 24 and 46 of GCI, arts 36 and 47 of GCII, art 13 of GCIII, arts 4 and 33 of GCIV, arts 20, 51(6), 52–5, 56(4) of API and art 4(4) of the 1954 Convention.

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20 APII defines such conflicts as armed conflicts ‘which take place in the territory of a High Contracting Party between its armed forces and dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups which, under responsible command, exercise such control over a part of its territory as to enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations and to implement this Protocol’ (art 1(1)).

21 Hague Law treaties encompass a long series of IHL treaties adopted over the past 150 years and placing limits on means and methods of waging war. Many of them apply both to IAC and NIAC.

22 ICTY, Prosecutor v Martić, Case No IT-95-11, Decision, 8 March 1996; Judgement, 12 June 2007; Judgement, 8 October 2008.

23 Kupreškić (n 14).

24 Martić (n 22, 2007) section 4.

25 Ibid section 468.

26 Kupreškić (n 14) section 513.

27 Martić (n 22, 1996) section 17.

28 Kupreškić (n 14) section 53.

29 ibid section 536.

30 Martić (n 22, 2007) section 465.

31 Henckaerts (n 13: I) 513.

32 Kupreškić (n 14) section 53.

33 ibid section 534.

34 Greenwood, C, Belligerent Reprisals in the Jurisprudence of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in Fischer, H, Kress, C and Luder, SR (eds), International and National Prosecution of Crimes under International Law: Current Developments (Berlin Verlag Arno Spitz 2001) 253Google Scholar.

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36 Henckaerts (n 13: I) 527. The study adds that ‘all practice describing the purpose of reprisals and conditions for resort to them refers to inter-State relations and originates from practice in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Recent practice relating to non-international armed conflicts has in no way supported the idea of enforcing the law in such conflicts through reprisals or similar countermeasures’. ibid.

37 ibid.

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39 In UN Doc A/56/10, Report of the International Law Commission on the work of its 53rd session, Official Records of the General Assembly, 56th session, Supplement No 10, November 2001, 194.

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56 See arts 24 and 46 of GCI, 36 and 47 of GCII, 13 of GCIII and 33 of GCIV.

57 Final Record of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Vol I, 47 and 55, and Vol. II/B, 127.

58 Henckaerts (n 13: II/2) 3488.

59 Toman, J, The Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict: Commentary on the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its Protocol, Signed on 14 May 1954 in The Hague, and on Other Instruments of International Law Concerning Such Protection (Dartmouth 1996) 391Google Scholar.

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63 CDDH, Official Records, Vol 1, Pt III, Draft Additional Protocols, 1973, 3–32 (DPI) and 33–46 (DPII).

64 ibid 8, 16, 22.

65 ibid 36.

66 ibid 38.

67 ibid., 40.

68 CDDH/ I/302, 23 April 1976.

69 CDDH/I/SR.73, 16 May 1973, para 23.

70 CDDH/SR.51, 3 June 1977, para 16.

71 CDDH/427, 31 May 1977.

72 This omission of a reference to belligerent reprisals was regretted by Cuba (CDDH/SR.56, 8 June 1977, VII-225) and the Holy See (CDDH/SR.58, 9 June 1977, VII-321-322).

73 ‘With regard to the word “reprisals” … there was no reason why it should not be used also in connexion with non-international armed conflicts.’ CDDH/I/SR.32, 19 March 1975 (VIII-324).

74 ‘One of the parties to a conflict might resort to reprisals even in an internal conflict.’ CDDH/III/ SR.20, 14 February 1975 (XIV-178).

75 CDDH/I/SR.73, 16 May 1977, IX-428.

76 ibid.

77 CDDH/III/12, 12 March 1974 and CDDH/ III/327, 30 April 1976.

78 CDDH/II/SR.28, 3 March 1975, XI-291.

79 CDDH/I/SR.73, 3 June 1977, IX-455.

80 CDDH/SR.51, 3 June 1977, VII-122.

81 CDDH/II/SR.28, 3 March 1975, XI-290.

82 CDDH/ I/SR.64, 7 June 1976, IX-318.

83 CDDH/I/SR.40, 14 April 1975, VIII-425.

84 CDDH/I/SR.32, 19 March 1975, VIII-425.

85 CDDH/II/SR.32, 7 March 1975, XI-336.

86 CDDH/II/SR.33, 10 March 1975, XI-340.

87 CDDH/II/SR.32, 7 March 1975, XI-336.

88 CDDH/I/SR.32, 19 March 1975, VIII-325.

89 CDDH/I/SR.73, 16 May 1977, IX-453.

90 CDDH/II/SR.33, 10 March 1975, XI-342.

91 Art 1(2) of the Amended Protocol II: ‘This Protocol shall apply … to situations referred to in Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949.’

92 As Zegveld (n 53) 30 rightly states, ‘until recently, the general belief was that no customary law existed with regard to internal conflicts.’

93 Tadić (n 18) section 98.

94 ICJ, North Sea Continental Shelf, Federal Republic of Germany v Denmark; Federal Republic of Germany v Netherlands, Judgment, 20 February 1969, ICJ Reports 1969, 44.

95 Other contentious areas include the institution of persistent objector, the relation between custom and treaties, and the existence of the instant custom.

96 Henckaerts (n 13: II/2) 3488–3506.

97 Continental Shelf case (n 94) section 27.

98 CBN News, Reprisals Rock Ivory Coast after Gbagbo Deposed, 13 April 2001; Le Parisien, Le représentant des rebelles ne craint pas les représailles, 12 January 2010; ReliefWeb, Tchad, L'offensive rebelle présente le risque de représailles ethniques, 13 April 2006 ; Tamil Guardian, Thousands flee Sri Lankan Military Reprisals, 18 January 2006.

99 See Sivakumaran, S, The Law of Non-International Armed Conflict (Oxford University Press 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

100 See UN Doc E/CN.4/1985/21.

101 Memorandum of Understanding on the Application of International Humanitarian Law between Croatia and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Geneva, 27 November 1991.

102 Agreement between Representatives of Mr Alija Izetbegović, Representatives of Mr Radovan Karadžić, and Representative of Mr Miljenko Brkić, Geneva, 22 May 1992.

103 Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law between the Government of the Republic of Philippines and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, The Hague, 16 March 1998.

104 General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Dayton Agreement), Paris, 14 December 1995.

105 Comprehensive Agreement (n 103) art 3.

106 Memorandum (n 101) section 6; Agreement (n 102) section 2.5.

107 ILA, Statement of Principles Applicable to the Formation of General Customary International Law, Final Report of the Committee on Formation of Customary (General) International Law, 2000, 14–15.

108 See the Military Manuals of Australia (1994: section 1211), Canada (2011: section 1507.6), Ecuador (1989: section 6.2.3), Germany (1996: section 318), Italy (1991: section 23), New Zealand (1992: section 1606-1), Switzerland (1987: art 197-1), UK (1958: section 643) and US (1976: section 10-7).

109 See the Military Manuals of Kenya (1997: 4) and Sweden (1991: 89).

110 See the Military Manuals of Benin (1995: 13), Congo (1987: art 32-2) and Mali (1979: art 36).

111 ILA (n 107) 55.

112 UN Docs E/CN.4/1993/66, E/CN.4/1994/84 and E/CN.4/1995/74.

113 UN Docs E/CN.4/2003/15 and E/CN.4/2004/84.

114 UN Doc E/CN.4/1995/56.

115 See the UN Doc 50/197 (1995), in which the UN General Assembly ‘calls upon … the Sudan to extend its … cooperation to the Special Rapporteur … with no threats or reprisals’ (para 13).

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118 Martić (n 22, 2007) section 464.

119 Kupreškić (n 14). See also section IIA of this article.

120 E Wahdat, ‘Afghan Fighters Threaten Reprisals over Bank Raid Executions’, Reuters, 20 June 2011.

121 Colombian News, ‘Represalias de las FARC por la fuga de un niño secuestrado’, 9 July 2011.

122 HRW, Iraq: ‘Reprisals Killing of a Civilian is War Crime’, 13 May 2004.

123 AFP, ‘Sri Lanka Launches New Strikes, LTTE Vows Reprisals’, 26 April 2008.

124 Sudan Tribune, ‘Gen. Athor Vows Reprisal Attacks after Fresh Clashes with South Sudan Army’, 7 May 2010.

125 This view is seen as possible by Darcy who asserts that ‘unless there is a rule that specifically outlaws their use, reprisals … may … legitimately continue on their (prima facie) law-breaking course’. Darcy (n 1, 2003) 218.

126 Pictet (n 35) 55.

127 ‘Although Protocol II does not specifically refer to reprisals against civilians, a prohibition against such reprisals must be inferred from its Article 4.’ Martić (n 22, 1996) section 16.

128 ‘/C/ommon article 3 prohibits any reprisals in non-international armed conflicts with respect to the expressly prohibited act as well as any other reprisal incompatible with the absolute requirement of human treatment.’ UN Doc A/CN.4/SER.A/1995/Add.1 (72).

129 See Cassese (n 48) 436; Zegveld (n 53) 92.

130 Kalshoven (n 1) 268.

131 See art 9 of the 1929 Geneva Convention and art 23 of the 1949 GCIII.

132 Sandoz, Y, Swinarski, C and Zimmermann, B (eds), Commentary on the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II) (ICRC/Martinus Nijhoff Publishers 1987) 1374Google Scholar.

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134 Cassese (n 48).

135 ICRC, The ICRC in Action: Information Notes, No 205b, 5 December 1973.

136 Kupreškić (n 14).

137 ibid section 517.

138 Kalshoven (n 43) 78.

139 Quénivet (n 51) 361.

140 Tadić (n 18) section 119.

141 Martić (n 22, 1996) section 15.

142 Boisson de Chazournes, L and Condorelli, L. ‘Common Article 1 of Geneva Conventions Revisited: Protecting Collective Interests’ (2000) 837 IRRC 69Google Scholar.

143 Kupreškić (n 14) section 520.

144 Statement by Brazil (CDDH/II/SR.33, 10 March 1975, XI-346).

145 Kupreškić (n 14) section 529.

146 See UN Doc A/56/10 (n 4)): 335–6.

147 CDDH/SR.46, 31 May 1977, VI-371.

148 CDDH/I/SR.73, 16 May 1977, IX-455.

149 Kupreškić (n 14).

150 Kalshoven (n 43).

151 ibid 78.

152 Darcy (n 41) 174.

153 See Section IVB of this article.

154 I am grateful to one of the anonymous reviewers for drawing my attention to this point.

155 Kupreškić (n 14) section 530.

156 Greenwood (n 49).

157 Kupreškić (n 14) section 528.

158 ‘[T]his goes to the roots of the concept of human rights, as fundamental rights of the human being as an individual, as distinct from his position as a member of the collectivity.’ Kalshoven (n 1) 186.

159 Oppenheim, L, International Law (7th edn, Longmans Green 1952) 450Google Scholar.

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161 Darcy (n 41) 174.

162 Henckaerts (n 13: I) 527.

163 PCIJ, Lotus Case (1927), The Case of the S. S. Lotus, France v Turkey, Judgment, 7 September 1927, section 96.

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167 See section IV of this article.