Rule 58. The improper use of the white flag of truce is prohibited.
State practice establishes this rule as a norm of customary international law applicable in both international and non-international armed conflicts.
This is a long-standing rule of customary international law already recognized in the Lieber Code, the Brussels Declaration and the Oxford Manual.[1] It is codified in the Hague Regulations.[2] The Report of the Commission on Responsibility set up after the First World War identified the “misuse of flags” as a violation of the laws and customs of war subject to criminal prosecution.[3] This rule is contained in Additional Protocol I.[4] Under the Statute of the International Criminal Court, “making improper use of a flag of truce” constitutes a war crime in international armed conflicts when it results in death or serious personal injury.[5]
The prohibition of improper use of the white flag of truce is contained in numerous military manuals.[6] Violations of this rule constitute an offence under the legislation of many States.[7] This rule is also supported by official statements and other practice.[8]
The prohibition of improper use of the flag of truce was included in the draft of Additional Protocol II by Committee III of the Diplomatic Conference leading to the adoption of the Additional Protocols but was deleted at the last moment as part of a package aimed at the adoption of a simplified text.[9] The prohibition is contained in other instruments pertaining also to non-international armed conflicts.[10]
This rule is set forth in military manuals which are applicable in or have been applied in non-international armed conflicts.[11] Violations of this rule constitute an offence under the legislation of many States.[12]
No official contrary practice was found. There is no practice either to indicate that it would be lawful to use improperly the protection of a white flag of truce in non-international armed conflicts. Such improper use would undermine the protection to which persons advancing in good faith under a white flag are entitled (see commentary to Rule 67). It can be concluded that the general abstention from improperly using the white flag of truce in practice is based on a legitimate expectation to that effect.
Improper use refers to any use other than that for which the flag of truce was intended, namely a request to communicate, for example, in order to negotiate a cease-fire or to surrender.[13] Any other use, for example, to gain a military advantage over the enemy, is improper and unlawful.
[1] Lieber Code, Article 114 (cited in Vol. II, Ch. 18, § 72) and Article 117 (ibid., § 73); Brussels Declaration, Article 13(f) (ibid., § 74); Oxford Manual, Article 8(d) (ibid., § 75).
[2] Hague Regulations, Article 23(f) (ibid., § 68).
[3] Report of the Commission on Responsibility (ibid., § 76).
[4] Additional Protocol I, Article 38(1) (adopted by consensus) (ibid., § 69).
[5] ICC Statute, Article 8(2)(b)(vii) (ibid., § 71).
[6] See, e.g., the military manuals of Argentina (ibid., §§ 80–81), Australia (ibid., §§ 82–83), Belgium (ibid., § 84), Burkina Faso (ibid., § 85), Cameroon (ibid., §§ 86–87), Canada (ibid., § 88), Congo (ibid., § 89), Ecuador (ibid., § 90), France (ibid., §§ 91–92), Germany (ibid., § 93), Italy (ibid., § 94), Republic of Korea (ibid., § 95), Lebanon (ibid., § 96), Madagascar (ibid., § 97), Mali (ibid., § 98), Morocco (ibid., § 99), Netherlands (ibid., §§ 100–101), New Zealand (ibid., § 102), Nigeria (ibid., §§ 103–105), Russian Federation (ibid., § 106), Senegal (ibid., § 107), South Africa (ibid., § 108), Spain (ibid., § 109), Sweden (ibid., § 110), United Kingdom (ibid., §§ 111–112), United States (ibid., §§ 113–116) and Yugoslavia (ibid., § 117).
[7] See, e.g., the legislation of Algeria (ibid., § 118), Australia (ibid., §§ 120–122), Azerbaijan (ibid., § 123), Belarus (ibid., § 124), Bosnia and Herzegovina (ibid., § 125), Burkina Faso (ibid., § 126), Canada (ibid., § 128), China (ibid., § 129), Congo (ibid., § 130), Democratic Republic of the Congo (ibid., § 131), Côte d’Ivoire (ibid., § 132), Croatia (ibid., § 133), Estonia (ibid., § 134), France (ibid., § 135), Georgia (ibid., § 136), Germany (ibid., § 137), Guinea (ibid., § 138), Ireland (ibid., § 139), Italy (ibid., §§ 140–141), Mali (ibid., § 142), Netherlands (ibid., §§ 144–145), New Zealand (ibid., § 146), Nicaragua (ibid., § 147), Norway (ibid., § 148), Poland (ibid., § 149), Slovenia (ibid., § 150), Spain (ibid., §§ 151–152), Sweden (ibid., § 153), United Kingdom (ibid., § 155), United States (ibid., § 156) and Yugoslavia (ibid., § 157); see also the draft legislation of Argentina (ibid., § 119), Burundi (ibid., § 127) and Trinidad and Tobago (ibid., § 154).
[8] See, e.g., the statement of the United States (ibid., § 160) and the practice of the United Kingdom (ibid., § 159).
[9] Draft Additional Protocol II, Article 23(2) (ibid., § 70).
[10] See, e.g., Memorandum of Understanding on the Application of IHL between Croatia and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, § 6 (ibid., § 77); Agreement on the Application of IHL between the Parties to the Conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, § 2.5 (ibid., § 78).
[11] See, e.g., the military manuals of Australia (ibid., § 82), Ecuador (ibid., § 90), Germany (ibid., § 93), Italy (ibid., § 94), Lebanon (ibid., § 96), Madagascar (ibid., § 97), Nigeria (ibid., §§ 103 and 105), South Africa (ibid., § 108) and Yugoslavia (ibid., § 117).
[12] See, e.g., the legislation of Azerbaijan (ibid., § 123), Belarus (ibid., § 124), Bosnia and Herzegovina (ibid., § 125), Democratic Republic of the Congo (ibid., § 131), Croatia (ibid., § 133), Estonia (ibid., § 134), Germany (ibid., § 137), Guinea (ibid., § 138), Nicaragua (ibid., § 147), Poland (ibid., § 149), Slovenia (ibid., § 150), Spain (ibid., § 152), Sweden (ibid., § 153) and Yugoslavia (ibid., § 157); see also the legislation of Burkina Faso (ibid., § 126) and Italy (ibid., §§ 140–141), the application of which is not excluded in time of non-international armed conflict, and the draft legislation of Argentina (ibid., § 119).
[13] See Vol. II, Ch. 19, §§ 49–92.