Rule 89. Murder is prohibited.
Volume II, Chapter 32, Section C.
State practice establishes this rule as a norm of customary international law applicable in both international and non-international armed conflicts.
The prohibition of murder of civilians was already recognized in the Lieber Code.
Murder of civilians and prisoners of war was included as a war crime in the Charter of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.
Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions prohibits “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds” of civilians and persons hors de combat
All four Geneva Conventions list “wilful killing” of protected persons as a grave breach.
The prohibition of murder is recognized as a fundamental guarantee by Additional Protocols I and II.
Murder is also specified as a war crime under the Statute of the International Criminal Court with respect to both international and non-international armed conflicts and under the Statutes of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda and of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
The prohibition on killing civilians and persons hors de combat
is set forth in numerous military manuals.
It is also contained in the legislation of a large number of States.
This prohibition has been upheld extensively in national and international case-law.
Furthermore, it is supported by official statements and other practice.
Alleged violations of this rule have consistently been condemned by States and international organizations, for example, by the UN Security Council, UN General Assembly and UN Commission on Human Rights with respect to the conflicts in Afghanistan, Burundi and the former Yugoslavia.
Allegations of such violations have also been denied by the States concerned, for example, during the Iran–Iraq War.
The ICRC has on numerous occasions condemned the killing of civilians and persons hors de combat
, stating that such behaviour is prohibited under international humanitarian law.
Murder of civilians and persons hors de combat
is also prohibited under international human rights law, albeit in different terms. Human rights treaties prohibit the “arbitrary deprivation of the right to life”.
This prohibition is non-derogable under these treaties and therefore applicable at all times.
In their statements before the International Court of Justice in the Nuclear Weapons case
and Nuclear Weapons (WHO) case
, several States which were not at the time party to the main human rights treaties stressed the elementary and non-derogable character of the right to life.
The prohibition of “arbitrary deprivation of the right to life” under human rights law, however, also encompasses unlawful killing in the conduct of hostilities, i.e., the killing of civilians and persons hors de combat not
in the power of a party to the conflict not justified under the rules on the conduct of hostilities. In its advisory opinion in the Nuclear Weapons case
, the International Court of Justice stated that “the test of what is an arbitrary deprivation of life, however, then falls to be determined by the applicable lex specialis
, namely, the law applicable in armed conflict which is designed to regulate the conduct of hostilities”.
As discussed in the chapters that deal with the conduct of hostilities, unlawful killings can result, for example, from a direct attack against a civilian (see Rule 1), from an indiscriminate attack (see Rule 11) or from an attack against military objectives causing excessive loss of civilian life (see Rule 14), all of which are prohibited by the rules on the conduct of hostilities.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has also used international humanitarian law as a method of interpreting the right to life during hostilities in situations amounting to armed conflict.
However, in other cases, human rights bodies have directly applied human rights law, without reference to international humanitarian law, in assessing whether there has been a violation of the right to life during hostilities.
In a number of cases relating to non-international armed conflicts or serious internal disturbances (including those involving the use of military force), the UN Human Rights Committee, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have stressed the need for proper precautions to be taken, for limitation of the use of force to the degree strictly necessary and for investigations to be undertaken in the case of suspicious deaths in order to ensure that a loss of life is not “arbitrary”.