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In warfare, a reprisal is a limited and deliberate violation of the laws of war to punish an enemy who has already broken them. A legally executed reprisal is not an atrocity.



The word came from French, where it originally meant "act of taking back", for example, raiding back the equivalent of cattle lost to an enemy raid.

International law

Reprisals refer to acts which are illegal if taken alone, but become legal when adopted by one state in retaliation for the commission of an earlier illegal act by another state.

An example of reprisal is the Naulilaa dispute between Portugal and Germany in 1928. After three Germans were mistakenly killed in Naulilaa on the border of the Portuguese colony of Angola (in a manner that did not violate international law)[1], Germany carried out a military raid on Naulilaa, destroying property in retaliation. A claim for compensation was brought by Portugal. The tribunal emphasized that before reprisals could be legally undertaken, a number of conditions had to be satisfied:

  • There had to be a previous act by the other party that violated international law.
  • Reprisals had to be preceded by an unsatisfied demand for reparation or compliance with the violated international law.
  • There must be proportionality between the offence and reprisal.

The German claim that it had acted lawfully was rejected on all three grounds.[2]

After 1945, as a result of the general prohibition on use of force imposed by Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, armed reprisals in time of peace are no longer legal, but the possibility remains of non-armed reprisals (also known as countermeasures)[3] as well as belligerent reprisals during hostilities when the law of international armed conflict (LOIAC) is violated.[4]

In the case of belligerent reprisals, apart from the three factors in the Naulilaa case, a warning must also be issued beforehand; once the other party has stopped violation of LOIAC, belligerent reprisals must also be terminated; and the decision to engage in belligerent reprisals must be taken by a competent authority.[4] In the United States military, the lowest ranked commander who may authorize a reprisal is a general in command of a theater.

All four Geneva Conventions prohibit reprisals against, respectively, battlefield casualties, shipwreck survivors, prisoners of war and civilians, as well as certain buildings and property. An additional 1977 protocol extends this to cover historic monuments, works of art, and places of worship.


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