Rule 115. Disposal of the Dead

Rule 115. The dead must be disposed of in a respectful manner and their graves respected and properly maintained.
State practice establishes this rule as a norm of customary international law applicable in both international and non-international armed conflicts.
The obligation to dispose of the dead respectfully was first codified in the 1929 Geneva Conventions.[1] It is now dealt with in detail in the 1949 Geneva Conventions.[2]
Many military manuals specify that the dead must be disposed of decently.[3] This obligation is set forth in the legislation of most, if not all, States.[4] It was upheld in 2002 by Israel’s High Court in the Jenin (Mortal Remains) case.[5]
The above-mentioned treaty provisions also require that graves be respected and properly maintained. Additional Protocol I adds that the parties must conclude agreements to protect and maintain gravesites permanently.[6] The requirement to respect and maintain gravesites is also laid down in numerous military manuals.[7]
The obligation to dispose of the dead decently in non-international armed conflicts is set forth in Additional Protocol II.[8] In addition, this rule is contained in other instruments pertaining also to non-international armed conflicts.[9]
A number of military manuals which are applicable in or have been applied in non-international armed conflicts specify that the dead must be disposed of decently.[10] The legislation of most, if not all, States requires respect for this rule.[11] It may be said that this rule reflects a general principle of law requiring respect for the dead and their graves.
No official contrary practice was found with respect to either international or non-international armed conflicts. A reported case of the disrespectful disposal of dead civilians in Papua New Guinea was condemned by the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions.[12]
It is also likely that further detailed rules supporting the requirement of decent disposal of the dead and respect and proper maintenance of their gravesites are contained in domestic legislation.
The Geneva Conventions specify that the dead must be buried, if possible, according to the rites of the religion to which they belonged and that they may only be cremated in exceptional circumstances, namely because of imperative reasons of hygiene, on account of the religion of the deceased or in accordance with the express wish of the deceased.[13] The Geneva Conventions furthermore require that, in principle, burial should be in individual graves. Collective graves may only be used when circumstances do not permit the use of individual graves or, in case of burial of prisoners of war or civilian internees, because unavoidable circumstances require the use of collective graves.[14] Lastly, the Geneva Conventions require that graves be grouped according to nationality if possible.[15] These requirements are also set forth in numerous military manuals.[16]
It is likely that some of these requirements also apply in non-international armed conflicts on the basis of national law. In 1995, for example, Colombia’s Council of State held that the deceased must be buried individually subject to all the requirements of the law, and not in mass graves.[17]
[1] 1929 Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armies in the Field, Article 4, fifth paragraph (cited in Vol. II, Ch. 35, § 328); 1929 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, Article 76, third paragraph (ibid., § 329).
[2] First Geneva Convention, Article 17 (ibid., § 330); Second Geneva Convention, Article 20 (ibid., § 330); Third Geneva Convention, Article 120 (ibid., § 330); Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 130 (ibid., § 330).
[3] See, e.g., the military manuals of Argentina (ibid., § 333), Australia (ibid., § 334), Belgium (ibid., § 335), Canada (ibid., §§ 336–337), Croatia (ibid., § 338), France (ibid., § 340), Hungary (ibid., § 341), Israel (ibid., § 342), Italy (ibid., § 343), Kenya (ibid., § 344), Madagascar (ibid., § 345), New Zealand (ibid., § 346), Philippines (ibid., § 347), Spain (ibid., § 349), Switzerland (ibid., § 350), Togo (ibid., § 351), United Kingdom (ibid., § 352) and United States (ibid., §§ 353–354).
[4] See, e.g., the legislation of Azerbaijan (ibid., § 355), Italy (ibid., § 358) and Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (ibid., § 360).
[5] Israel, High Court of Justice, Jenin (Mortal Remains) case (ibid., § 361).
[6] Additional Protocol I, Article 34(2) (adopted by consensus) (ibid., § 488).
[7] See, e.g., the military manuals of Argentina (ibid., § 491), Australia (ibid., § 492), Canada (ibid., § 493), Croatia (ibid., § 494), France (ibid., § 495), Hungary (ibid., § 496), Israel (ibid., § 497), Netherlands (ibid., § 498), New Zealand (ibid., § 499), Spain (ibid., § 500), Switzerland (ibid., § 501), United Kingdom (ibid., § 502), United States (ibid., §§ 503–504) and Yugoslavia (ibid., § 505).
[8] Additional Protocol II, Article 8 (adopted by consensus) (ibid., § 331).
[9] See, e.g., Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law in the Philippines, Part IV, Article 4(9) (ibid., § 332).
[10] See, e.g., the military manuals of Australia (ibid., § 334), Canada (ibid., §§ 336–337), Croatia (ibid., § 338), Hungary (ibid., § 341), Italy (ibid., § 343), Kenya (ibid., § 344), Madagascar (ibid., § 345), New Zealand (ibid., § 346), Philippines (ibid., § 347), Spain (ibid., § 349) and Togo (ibid., § 351).
[11] See, e.g., the legislation of Azerbaijan (ibid., § 355) and Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (ibid., § 360).
[12] UN Commission on Human Rights, Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Report (ibid., § 365).
[13] First Geneva Convention, Article 17 (ibid., §§ 372 and 398); Third Geneva Convention, Article 120 (ibid., §§ 372 and 399); Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 130 (ibid., §§ 372 and 400).
[14] First Geneva Convention, Article 17, first paragraph (ibid., § 430); Second Geneva Convention, Article 20, first paragraph (ibid., § 431); Third Geneva Convention, Article 120, fifth paragraph (ibid., § 432); Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 130, second paragraph (ibid., § 433).
[15] First Geneva Convention, Article 17, third paragraph (ibid., § 464); Third Geneva Convention, Article 120, fourth paragraph (ibid., § 465).
[16] Concerning respect for the religious beliefs of the dead, see, e.g., the military manuals of Argentina (ibid., § 375), Australia (ibid., § 376), Benin (ibid., § 377), Cameroon (ibid., § 378), Canada (ibid., §§ 379–380), Israel (ibid., § 381), Philippines (ibid., § 382), Switzerland (ibid., § 383), Togo (ibid., § 384), United Kingdom (ibid., § 385) and United States (ibid., § 386). Concerning the cremation of bodies, see, e.g., the military manuals of Argentina (ibid., § 402), Australia (ibid., § 403), Benin (ibid., § 404), Canada (ibid., §§ 405–406), France (ibid., § 407), Israel (ibid., § 408), Kenya (ibid., § 409), Netherlands (ibid., § 410), Spain (ibid., § 411), Switzerland (ibid., § 412), Togo (ibid., § 413), United Kingdom (ibid., §§ 414–415) and United States (ibid., §§ 416–418). Concerning the burial in individual or collective graves, see, e.g., the military manuals Argentina (ibid., § 436), Australia (ibid., § 437), Benin (ibid., § 438), Canada (ibid., §§ 439–440), Croatia (ibid., § 441), France (ibid., § 442), Italy (ibid., § 443), Kenya (ibid., § 444), Madagascar (ibid., § 445), Netherlands (ibid., § 446), Spain (ibid., § 447), Switzerland (ibid., § 448), Togo (ibid., § 449), United Kingdom (ibid., § 450), United States (ibid., § 451) and Yugoslavia (ibid., § 452). Concerning the grouping of graves according to nationality, see, e.g., the military manuals of Argentina (ibid., § 468), Australia (ibid., § 469), Cameroon (ibid., § 470), Netherlands (ibid., § 471), United States (ibid., § 472) and Yugoslavia (ibid., § 473).
[17] Colombia, Council of State, Administrative Case No. 10941 (ibid., § 456).