Section D. Burial in individual or collective graves
Geneva Convention I
Article 17, first paragraph, of the 1949 Geneva Convention I provides that parties to the conflict shall ensure that burial or cremation of the dead is “carried out individually as far as circumstances permit”.
Geneva Convention II
Article 20, first paragraph, of the 1949 Geneva Convention II provides that parties to the conflict shall ensure that burial at sea of the dead be “carried out individually as far as circumstances permit”.
Geneva Convention III
Article 120, fifth paragraph, of the 1949 Geneva Convention III provides: “Deceased prisoners of war shall be buried in individual graves unless unavoidable circumstances require the use of collective graves.”
Geneva Convention IV
Article 130, second paragraph, of the 1949 Geneva Convention IV provides: “Deceased internees shall be buried in individual graves unless unavoidable circumstances require the use of collective graves.”
NATO Standardization Agreement 2070
The 1999 NATO Standardization Agreement 2070 provides:
3. Whenever practicable, separate burial should be given to the remains, or even part remains, of each deceased person.
6. The following definitions are taken from the NATO Glossary of Terms and Definitions for military use in English and French …:
a. Emergency Burial. A burial, usually on the battlefield, when conditions do not permit evacuation for burial in a cemetery.
b. Group Burial. A burial in a common grave of two or more individually unidentified remains.
c. Trench Burial. A method of burial resorted to when casualties are heavy whereby a trench is prepared and the individual remains are laid in it side by side, thus obviating the necessity of digging and filling individual graves.
12. In the case of trench and group burials a marker and list in a suitable container endorsed accordingly is to be placed at each end of the grave and the distance of the remains from the marker is to be shown against the relevant entry in the list. In group burials, the number of bodies buried must be recorded, with the names of the known but unidentifiable dead listed.
Argentina’s Law of War Manual (1969) provides that the deceased must “be buried individually, so far as the circumstances so permit”.
Australia’s Defence Force Manual (1994) states: “The burial or cremation of the dead shall be carried out individually.”
Australia’s LOAC Manual (2006) states: “The burial or cremation of the dead shall be carried out individually.”
The LOAC Manual (2006) replaces both the Defence Force Manual (1994) and the Commanders’ Guide (1994).
Benin’s Military Manual (1995) provides that the dead “shall be buried, cremated or buried at sea individually”.
Burundi’s Regulations on International Humanitarian Law (2007) states that “after identification, the dead must be buried individually, if the tactical situation and other circumstances (e.g. hygiene) permit”.
Canada’s LOAC Manual (1999) provides: “Parties to the conflict shall ensure that burial or cremation of the dead is carried out individually as far as circumstances permit.”
Canada’s Code of Conduct (2001) provides: “The burial or cremation of the dead should be carried out individually as far as circumstances permit.”
Canada’s LOAC Manual (2001) states in its chapter on the treatment of the wounded, sick and shipwrecked: “Parties to the conflict shall ensure that burial or cremation of the dead is carried out individually as far as circumstances permit.”
Canada’s Prisoner of War Handling and Detainees Manual (2004) states with regard to the funeral arrangements for prisoners of war (PW): “Unless circumstances necessitate the use of collective graves, deceased PW are to be buried in individual graves.”
Canada’s Code of Conduct (2005) instructs: “The burial or cremation of the dead should be carried out individually as far as circumstances permit.”
Central African Republic
The Central African Republic’s Instructor’s Manual (1999) states in Volume 3 (Instruction for non-commissioned officers studying for the level 1 and 2 certificates and for future officers of the criminal police): “At all times, and especially following a battle, the dead must be … buried, if possible individually”.
Croatia’s Commanders’ Manual (1992) provides: “As a rule, the dead shall be … buried, cremated or buried at sea individually.”
France’s LOAC Manual (2001) reproduces Article 17 of the 1949 Geneva Convention I.
Italy’s LOAC Elementary Rules Manual (1991) provides: “As a general rule, the dead shall be … buried, cremated or buried at sea individually”.
Kenya’s LOAC Manual (1997) states: “After identification, the dead shall be buried, cremated or buried at sea individually, when the tactical situation and other circumstances (e.g. hygiene) permit.”
Madagascar’s Military Manual (1994) provides: “Generally, the dead shall be … buried, cremated or buried at sea individually.”
Mexico’s Army and Air Force Manual (2009), in a section on the 1949 Geneva Convention I, states: “Parties to the conflict must ensure that burial on land or at sea or cremation of the dead … [is] carried out individually as far as circumstances permit”.
The Military Manual (1993) of the Netherlands states: “Parties to the conflict are obliged to ensure that burial or cremation of the dead shall be carried out individually.”
The Military Manual (2005) of the Netherlands states: “The parties to a conflict are bound to ensure that burial or cremation of the dead takes place separately as far as possible for each of the deceased”.
Peru’s IHL Manual (2004) states: “On land, bodies should be buried, individually if circumstances permit, rather than cremated.”
Peru’s IHL and Human Rights Manual (2010) states: “If circumstances permit, the dead must be buried individually [on land]. … At sea, the dead should be committed to the sea, individually if circumstances permit, if they cannot be taken to land.”
Poland’s Procedures Governing the Interment of Soldiers Killed in Action (2009) states: “Whenever possible, the bodies of soldiers belonging to the national armed forces, allied forces or enemy forces, as well as the bodies of non-combatants, shall be buried in individual graves.”
The Procedures also states: “The graves may be dug as individual, group or trench graves.”
The Procedures further states in the section on definitions:
Burial in a common grave of two or more unidentified bodies or human remains.
The burial of bodies in collective graves, in the event of very heavy casualties, when the bodies or remains cannot be separated from one another, and cannot be identified.
The Procedures also states: “Civilian members of the armed forces who had not participated in hostilities shall be buried in line with procedures established for the burial of the bodies of soldiers.”
The Russian Federation’s Regulations on the Application of IHL (2001) provides: “Whenever possible, dead bodies or the remains thereof shall be buried individually in accordance with the rites of the religion to which they belonged.”
South Africa’s LOAC Teaching Manual (2008) states:
Search for Casualties
 Geneva Convention I article 15 stipulates that the Parties to the conflict must, at all times, particularly after an engagement, without delay, take all possible measures to[:]
- search for the dead and prevent their being despoiled.
Burial of the Dead
- Bodies must, wherever possible, be buried in separate graves.
Search for Casualties (Article 18  Geneva Convention II)
- After every engagement at sea all possible measures must be taken to search for and collect the dead, wounded, sick and shipwrecked.
- Burial of the Dead
- Burial can take place at sea (individually if circumstances permit).
- If the bodies are brought ashore, the prescriptions of Geneva Convention I, regarding burial at land, will apply.
Spain’s LOAC Manual (1996) provides: “The dead shall be buried, cremated or buried at sea individually.”
Spain’s LOAC Manual (2007) states that “the dead must be buried or cremated individually”.
Switzerland’s Basic Military Manual (1987) states: “If possible, corpses shall be buried separately.”
Togo’s Military Manual (1996) provides that the dead “shall be buried, incinerated or buried at sea individually”.
Ukraine’s IHL Manual (2004) states:
126.96.36.199. The best spaces of open and dry terrain shall be chosen for gravesites and separate graves.
188.8.131.52. As much as possible, the burial of the dead bodies or their remains shall be done individually.
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
The UK Military Manual (1958) provides: “The belligerents must make provision for … interment, in individual graves so far as possible”.
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
The UK LOAC Manual (2004) states: “The remains of the dead are to be honourably interred (unless burial at sea is appropriate), in so far as possible in individual graves”.
United States of America
The US Field Manual (1956) provides: “Parties to the conflict shall ensure burial or cremation of the dead, carried out individually as far as circumstances permit.”
Yugoslavia, Socialist Federal Republic of
The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’s Military Manual (1988) stipulates that bodies should be buried individually.
Bangladesh’s International Crimes (Tribunal) Act (1973) states that the “violation of any humanitarian rules applicable in armed conflicts laid down in the Geneva Conventions of 1949” is a crime.
Denmark’s Military Criminal Code (1973), as amended in 1978, provides:
Any person who uses war instruments or procedures the application of which violates an international agreement entered into by Denmark or the general rules of international law, shall be liable to the same penalty [i.e. a fine, lenient imprisonment or up to 12 years’ imprisonment].
Denmark’s Military Criminal Code (2005) provides:
Any person who deliberately uses war means [“krigsmiddel”] or procedures the application of which violates an international agreement entered into by Denmark or international customary law, shall be liable to the same penalty [i.e. imprisonment up to life imprisonment].
Under Ireland’s Geneva Conventions Act (1962), as amended in 1998, any “minor breach” of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, including violations of Article 17 of the Geneva Convention I, Article 20 of the Geneva Convention II, Article 120 of the Geneva Convention III and Article 130 of the Geneva Convention IV, is a punishable offence.
Norway’s Military Penal Code (1902), as amended in 1981, provides:
Anyone who contravenes or is accessory to the contravention of provisions relating to the protection of persons or property laid down in … the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 … is liable to imprisonment.
In 1995, 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.
In 2007, in the Burial case, the Russian Federation’s Constitutional Court was called upon to rule on the constitutionality of two laws related to the interment of suspected terrorists whose deaths resulted from the interception of their terrorist acts. The Court held that the restrictive measures introduced by these laws were in conformity with the Constitution. The Court stated:
3.1 … [T]he interest in fighting terrorism, in preventing terrorism in general and specific terms and in providing redress for the effects of terrorist acts, coupled with the risk of mass disorder, clashes between different ethnic groups and aggression by the next of kin of those involved in terrorist activity against the population at large and law-enforcement officials, and lastly the threat to human life and limb, may, in a given historical context, justify the establishment of a particular legal regime, such as that provided for by section 14(1) of the Federal Act [on Interment and Burial of 12 January 1996, as amended], governing the burial of persons who escape prosecution in connection with terrorist activity on account of their death following the interception of a terrorist act. …
3.2. Action to minimise the informational and psychological impact of the terrorist act on the population, including the weakening of its propaganda effect, is one of the means necessary to protect public security and the morals, health, rights and legal interests of citizens. It therefore pursues exactly those aims for which the Constitution of the Russian Federation and international legal instruments permit restrictions on the relevant rights and freedoms.
The burial of those who have taken part in a terrorist act, in close proximity to the graves of the victims of their acts, and the observance of rites of burial and remembrance with the paying of respects, as a symbolic act of worship, serve as a means of propaganda for terrorist ideas and also cause offence to relatives of the victims of the acts in question, creating the preconditions for increasing inter-ethnic and religious tension.
In the conditions which have arisen in the Russian Federation as a result of the commission of a series of terrorist acts which produced numerous human victims, resulted in widespread negative social reaction and had a major impact on the collective consciousness, the return of the body to the relatives … may create a threat to social order and peace and to the rights and legal interests of other persons and their security, including incitement to hatred and incitement to engage in acts of vandalism, violence, mass disorder and clashes which may produce further victims. Meanwhile, the burial places of participants in terrorist acts may become a shrine for certain extremist individuals and be used by them as a means of propaganda for the ideology of terrorism and involvement in terrorist activity.
In such circumstances, the federal legislature may introduce special arrangements governing the burial of individuals whose death occurred as a result of the interception of a terrorist act in which they were taking part.
The Court also stated:
The constitutional and legal meaning of the existing norms presupposes the possibility of bringing court proceedings to challenge a decision to discontinue, on account of the deaths of the suspects, a criminal case against or prosecution of participants in a terrorist act. Accordingly, they also presuppose an obligation on the court’s part to examine the substance of the complaint, that is, to verify [that] the decision and the conclusions therein [are lawful and well founded] as regards the participation of the persons concerned in a terrorist act, and to establish the absence of grounds for rehabilitating [the suspects] and discontinuing the criminal case. They thus entail an examination of the lawfulness of the application of the aforementioned restrictive measures. Until the entry into force of the court judgment the deceased’s remains cannot be buried; the relevant State bodies and officials must take all necessary measures to ensure that the bodies are disposed of … through the burial of the remains in the ground ... or by [cremation], individually, if possible.
In 2007, in its initial report to the Committee against Torture, Chad stated: “[O]n 21 March 1980 Hissène Habré’s Armed Forces of the North (FAN) and Goukouni Weddeye’s Popular Armed Forces (FAP) clashed in N’Djamena. When Habré retreated a mass grave was discovered close to his home in N’Djamena.”
Democratic Republic of the Congo
In 2008, a training manual by the Prosecutor at the Military High Court for magistrates on techniques for investigating sexual crimes, including war crimes, was adopted as part of the Programme on Investigating Sexual Crimes of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The training manual states:
In addition, there are, unfortunately, cases of mass burial aimed at eliminating traces of crimes … This criminal form [of mass burial] is addressed here, insofar as it is used as a subterfuge to conceal mass violations of human rights committed during armed conflicts. …
§ 2. The concept of mass graves
There is no consensus about the characteristics nor the minimum number of individuals required for the constitution of a mass grave. … [Doctrine] distinguishes [different types of] mass graves according to whether they are constituted as:
a. a simple trench where bodies are grouped, with a minimum contact among them;
b. a more complex structure where corpses form a dense and contiguous aggregate, which is called a “mass of corps”. In this case, the individuals touch each other, and might be tangled, contorted or embroiled among them. There might even be dispersed remains which do not belong to this mass.
c. a multi-layered structure: there might be dressed and undressed bodies in various levels inside the grave. When exhumed, this mass is characterised by a chaotic and distressing image … Multiple masses of corps in the same grave indicate that the bodies were thrown there in different moments. The existence of layers of remains separated by an embankment of earth is another indication that … groups of individuals were deposited on successive occasions[.]
UN Commission of Experts Established pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780 (1992)
In 1994, in its final report on grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and other violations of IHL committed in the former Yugoslavia, the UN Commission of Experts Established pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780 (1992) noted, with respect to its investigation into mass graves:
A mass gravesite is a potential repository of evidence of mass killings of civilians and POWs [prisoners of war] …
The manner and method by which a mass grave is created may itself be a breach of the Geneva Conventions, as well as a violation of the customary regulations of armed conflict … Parties to a conflict must also ensure that deceased persons are … buried in individual graves, as far apart as circumstances permit.
To fulfil its task of disseminating IHL, the ICRC has delegates around the world teaching armed and security forces the rule that “burial or cremation shall, as far as circumstances permit, be carried out individually”.