United States of America
Practice Relating to Rule 146. Reprisals against Protected Persons
Section D. Civilians in the power of the adversary
The US Field Manual (1956), referring to Article 33 of the 1949 Geneva Convention IV, states: “Reprisals against … protected civilians are forbidden … However, reprisals may still be visited on enemy troops who have not yet fallen into the hands of the forces making the reprisals.”
The US Air Force Pamphlet (1976), referring to Article 33 of the 1949 Geneva Convention IV, provides:
No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited. Reprisals against protected persons … are prohibited.
The Pamphlet further states:
Reprisals are forbidden, under all circumstances, against the persons or objects referenced above in accordance with the 1949 Geneva Conventions. At least some, and possibly all, of these prohibitions are regarded as customary law and are binding regardless of whether the adversary is a party to the Geneva Conventions. For definitions as to persons or objects protected under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, applicable articles of those documents must be consulted. Also, the prohibition in Article 33, [Geneva Convention IV], protecting civilians includes all those who … at a given moment and in any manner whatsoever, find themselves, in case of a conflict or occupation, in the hands of a Party to the conflict or Occupying Power of which they are not nationals. (Article 4, [Geneva Convention IV]).
The US Soldier’s Manual (1984), under the heading “Treat all captives and detainees humanely”, tells soldiers: “You must never engage in reprisals or acts of revenge against any persons, enemy or civilian, whom you capture or detain in combat.”
In a part dealing with the treatment of civilians and private property, the manual further states: “The Geneva Conventions forbid retaliating against civilians for the actions of enemy soldiers.”
The US Air Force Commander’s Handbook (1980), under the heading “Persons and Things Not Subject to Reprisals”, states: “Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, reprisals may not be directed against … the inhabitants of occupied territory”.
The US Operational Law Handbook (1993) provides: “The following measures are expressly prohibited by the law of war and are not excusable on the basis of military necessity: … m. Reprisals against persons or property protected by the Geneva Conventions, to include … civilians.”
The US Naval Handbook (1995) states: “Reprisals are forbidden to be taken against: 1. … interned civilians … 3. Civilians in occupied territory.”
The Handbook also provides: “All interned civilians … may not be subjected to reprisal action or collective punishment.”
The US Naval Handbook (2007) states:
Reprisals are forbidden to be taken against:
1. … interned civilians
3. Civilians in occupied territory.
In the Calley case
in 1973, a US army officer was convicted of murder for killing South Vietnamese civilians. The US Army Court of Military Review dismissed the argument that the acts were lawful reprisals for illegal acts of the enemy and held: “Slaughtering many for the presumed delicts of a few is not a lawful response to the delicts … Reprisal by summary execution of the helpless is forbidden in the laws of land warfare.”
An instruction card issued to all US troops engaged in Viet Nam directed soldiers always to treat prisoners humanely, adding: “All persons in your hands, whether suspects [or] civilians … must be protected against violence, insults, curiosity, and reprisals of any kind.”
In 1980, in a footnote to a memorandum of law on the “Reported Use of Chemical Agents in Afghanistan, Laos, and Kampuchea”, a legal adviser of the US Department of State stated:
In theory, an attempt might also be made to justify the use of chemical weapons in Afghanistan as a lawful reprisal against violations of the general laws of war by Afghan insurgents (such as the summary execution of Soviet prisoners). However, such an argument would face several serious problems. First, the prohibition in the [1925 Geneva Gas] Protocol and in customary international law apparently itself precludes use of chemical weapons in reprisal except in response to enemy use of weapons prohibited by the [1925 Geneva Gas] Protocol … Second, reprisals against the civilian population of occupied territories are expressly precluded by the law of war, and this would apply to reprisals against Afghan villages in areas occupied by Soviet forces. See Article 33 of [the 1949 Geneva Convention IV].